Aug 6, 2012
Solar panels power California grape grower

By its nature, agriculture is solar friendly; after all, without the sun, nothing grows. Growers in some parts of the country, however – particularly California – are using solar power in concrete and technologically sophisticated ways, as they integrate photovoltaic (PV) solar projects into their electrical power needs.

One factor driving this trend is the economic competitiveness of solar power. According to a recent paper by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the cost of solar power has declined sharply over the past several years.

“Average PV module prices have fallen by nearly 75 percent in the past three years, to the point where solar power is now competitive with daytime retail power prices in a number of countries,” according to the paper.

Another factor is the financial incentives that some states are giving to industrial facilities – agricultural and otherwise – that install photovoltaic and other renewable energy systems.

“California and New Jersey are the two strongest states in terms of solar energy installation,” said Glenna Wiseman, vice president of marketing for HelioPower in Murietta, Calif. “California has had incentives in place for a long time. Some of those incentives actually are coming to an end.”

A third factor that may play into agriculture’s easy acceptance of solar power is the multi-generational aspects of many farms.

“Growers tend to have a long-term outlook,” said Marissa Muller, marketing director at SPG Solar in Novato, Calif. “They know that solar is a 25-year asset once it’s paid off, and something they can pass on to other generations.”

Giumarra Vineyards, based in Edison in California’s Central Valley, is one of the largest growers of table grapes in the United States, and also represents an international network of fresh produce growers, distributors and marketers that offers a full line of fresh fruits and vegetables year round. In addition, the company operates a beverage co-packing plant and winery, with a focus on producing bulk grape juice and concentrate products.

Giumarra Vineyards recently installed a solar installation that will power its main production and cold storage facility.

“In our case, the move to solar energy was championed by the younger generation,” said Jim Giumarra, spokesman for the company. “But in the end, it was a fairly easy ‘sell’ to the whole company and the whole family. It’s an easy decision when it’s a cash flow-positive project from the start. It also fit nicely into the ‘green’ and sustainable initiatives that we’re trying to follow.”

Jim said one reason agriculture seems to be on the forefront of solar power usage is, quite simply, land.

“Many operations have land near facilities, such as coolers, that require a lot of power,” he said. “That was the case with us. We had an easy place to put a solar installation that was easier than trying to squeeze it onto a rooftop or within city limits, the way other industries might have to.”

Part of what made the project appealing, Jim said, was the incentives.

“The financing was attractive,” he said. “In addition, the incentives that were available plus the utility savings are greater than the service payments on the panels. Things like that make decisions easy.”

Advances in technology didn’t hurt, either.

“It’s now a fairly proven and predictable technology, so you can pretty much dial in on what it’s going to do,” he said. “From a farmer’s perspective, that’s nice, because we’re used to dealing with huge volatility in crops. There’s not nearly as much volatility in the sun.”

Although the solar installation at Giumarra Vineyards has been running since last September, Jim said it’s proving itself quickly; it is working better than the manufacturer, Canadian Solar, predicted it would.

“We want to see how it performs over a couple of years, but it’s really nice to see it performing above-plan right out of the box,” he said. “That reinforces that we made a good decision.”

Another grower, Stewart & Jasper Orchards, located near Newman, Calif., had solar power installed two years ago.

“Prior to talking to a couple of providers, I would have never considered it,” said Jim Jasper, company president. “I thought it didn’t work.”

Stewart & Jasper has about 2,000 acres of orchards, mostly almonds but with a few walnuts, cherries and citrus crops.

“We also haul, shell, process and market almonds for many of our neighbors,” Jasper said. “As a result, we use a lot of electricity, particularly during the harvest time. When we looked at the economics of going to solar, it made total sense to me.”

After looking at several systems, Jasper decided on one from SPG Solar that would follow the sun during the day.

“It took 7 acres to take care of 35 to 40 percent of our total electrical needs,” he said. “It would have cost about $5 million to put in. What made it attractive was that of that $5 million, $3.5 million was subsidized by PGE, our electrical provider, and the federal government. So it only cost me $1.5 million to install it. It’s supposed to last 25 years, and you lose about half a percent of efficiency every year.”

To install the system, Jasper had to take out 7 acres of producing trees, but said it was worth the loss of a small part of the orchard.

“The payback for the $1.5 million is going to be six years,” he said. “That means I have 19 years of providing electricity for myself. The savings on electricity is about $250,000 a year now, and will be more if electric rates go up.”

Jasper said putting in a solar array was strictly an economic decision.

“It just made financial sense for us to do it.”

By Carolee Anita Boyles, FGN Correspondent





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