Clovis farmer plugs into solar in a big, big way
By Ching Lee
As a farmer, Pat Ricchiuti of Clovis already considers himself one of the biggest users of solar energy because of all the crops he grows, but he will now be relying on the sun for more than just photosynthesis.
The Fresno County Farm Bureau president recently completed one of the largest, privately financed solar-energy systems in the state, a $6.4 million project that has taken Ricchiuti more than two years to complete on his P-R Farms.
With Governor Schwarzenegger expressing strong interest in solar and the state Legislature considering the Million Solar Roofs Initiative, which aims to add one million solar roofs to California's energy supply by 2018, solar technology may be on its way to becoming a cost-effective alternative energy source for more businesses and homeowners.
Standing on the roof of the 150,000-square-foot packinghouse, where the 7,730 solar panels are laid, Ricchiuti said using solar energy simply made sense--for his operation and for all of California.
"It's the right thing to do for the environment and for controlling my energy costs in the future," he said. "We have the square footage on the roof to accommodate it. Other (renewable energy) sources require other kinds of programs and do not utilize the environmental benefits as well as solar. This is the cleanest form of energy there is. There are no emissions. We felt it best suited our needs."
In the San Joaquin Valley, solar users like Ricchiuti are not only helping to clean the air by plugging into the sun, but also taking pressure off the state's energy grid by taking advantage of California's long, hot summers when sunshine is plentiful and power is in high demand. Ricchiuti added that solar fits well with his idea of contributing to the environment and being a steward of natural resources.
"Farmers are the ultimate environmentalists," he said. "We are producing the oxygen. We're consuming the carbon dioxide. We're also maintaining the soil so that it's not eroded away."
Ricchiuti was able to get his solar project off the ground by some financial assistance through a ratepayer-funded rebate administered and disbursed by his utility company. Even with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. covering 50 percent of the project's total cost, Ricchiuti's share totaled $3.2 million. He estimates that it will take about 10 years for the project to pay for itself.
According to PG&E, Ricchiuti's 928-kilowatt system is the largest solar rebate the utility company has issued. Other large solar projects the utility company has funded include Semitropic Water Storage District's 841-kilowatt system in Wasco and Rodney Strong Vineyard's 692-kilowatt system in Sonoma County. Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Gas Company also have awarded incentives on similar self-generating energy systems. All of the projects help reduce the load on the state's electrical grid during the peak summer months.
Joe Desmond, chairman of the California Energy Commission and the governor's top energy advisor, commended P-R Farms for contributing to the solution of California's energy problems.
"They are setting an example to other businesses in the Central Valley about how renewable energy and technologies can work and work well," said Desmond.
At full capacity, Ricchiuti's solar system will supply enough electricity to power 50 percent of his packing facility, which processes about 1.5 million boxes of peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, oranges and apples a year. That amount of electricity would be enough to power about 216 homes a year, said PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno.
While the high upfront cost and long-term payoff may seem like a deterrent for those considering solar, so far, there has been no shortage of applicants for the incentive programs, Moreno said. California's four major utility companies have long waiting lists and limited funding, prompting the California Public Utilities Commission to scale back the incentive level in January to stretch funding dollars.
"This is a very popular program, and it was so popular that we had to actually stop accepting applications because the state only allows us to do so much funding for these rebates," said Moreno. "Yes, it requires a long payback, but there's the economic interest as well. People feel that if they can reduce their energy costs for the next 20 or 30 years, that's an investment they're making. It's certainly a long-term investment."
With an average annual energy bill of more than $1 million, Ricchiuti said he was willing to make that long-term investment.
The California Energy Commission offers a similar program to help fund smaller projects of 30 kilowatts or less. A growing number of agricultural operations, businesses and homeowners in California are turning to sun power to satisfy their energy consumption.
Steve Schafer, a winegrape grower in Madera County, is in his first year of using a 35-kilowatt solar system to power his 120-acre vineyard and home. He situated the 3,000-square-foot solar panels in a pasture near his vineyard so that he didn't have to sacrifice any grapevines. His system will produce enough energy to supply 80 percent of his needs, he said.
Schafer said what he likes about the system is that PG&E gives him credit for energy he is generating but not using, which means he's able to bank that power and use it at a later time. Essentially, his meter runs backwards during off-peak times when his energy consumption is low, he explained. And because of the wet spring this year, he banked plenty of power while his irrigation pumps sat idle.
"What I'm basically doing is reducing the demand that I have on the grid to where I'm almost negligible," he added. "On an average year, my system used about $10,000 or $11,000 worth of power. Now I'm probably only going to be using $2,000 worth of power."
Carl Hoff, president of Butte County Rice Growers Association, which installed a 200-kilowatt solar system for its rice-drying operation more than a year ago, said the farmer-owned cooperative began looking for alternative energy sources after California's rolling blackouts in 2001, when the association's electricity costs shot up by 40 percent.
Since rice drying takes place during the fall, he said, the system essentially "feeds the rest of California" during the summer when there is low power usage at the dryer.
"It's helping California," Hoff said. "They get power produced when they need it, and then we get credit for it, and we get to turn around and use those credits during the fall when we need to run. So it's a win-win."
Hoff said he is also pleased with how well the system has performed.
"One of the things I liked about the system is that there is virtually no maintenance involved, and the only maintenance that we have is to wash the panels once in a while when they get dusty," he said.
But he recognizes the hurdle that many businesses are facing now as they wait in line for their projects to be funded.
"I think there's no question that there's a demand for it," he said of solar technology. "The question is will there be funding available for these programs."
Although tax incentives help, it is the rebate program that makes solar projects economically feasible for California businesses, said Hoff.
"The long-term goal is to create a self-sustaining solar industry that does not require rebates or incentives," said Desmond. "There are a lot of things the state can do to move the industry forward. Incentives are one mechanism. Standards are another mechanism. Demonstration and having companies lead by example, including state facilities, are another way in which we can encourage and show people that renewable energy technology is clearly part of our future."
(Ching Lee is a reporter with the California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be contacted at (800) 698-FARM or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)