Solar Becomes a Growing Example in California

As a farmer, Pat Ricchuiti 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 is currently finishing one of the largest, privately financed solar-energy systems in the state. He unveiled the $6.4 million project last week to California energy officials, who toured P-R Farms in Clovis to get a closer look at how the most popular renewable energy source will be used to power Ricchuiti’s 150,000-square-foot packinghouse.

Standing on the facility’s rooftop, where the 7,730 solar panels are laid, Ricchuiti said using solar energy simply made sense. “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.” Like many of these large solar projects in California, it wouldn’t have happened without a state rebate administered and disbursed by Ricchuiti’s electric utility. Per the state mandate, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. covered 50 percent of the project’s total cost, bringing Ricchuiti’s cost down to $3.2 million. According to PG&E, Ricchuiti’s 928 kW system is the largest solar rebate the utility company will issue. At full capacity, Ricchuiti’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 will also be enough to power about 216 homes a year, said PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno. Only about 25 percent of the system is currently up, said Ricchuiti, but he expects to be completely on line by early July. The project also included retrofitting higher energy-efficiency lighting for the plant. Ricchuiti acknowledged it would take some time for the project to pay for itself. He was initially told it would take him six years to recoup the cost, but after some recalculations, he estimated his payback period would be more like nine to 11 years. “That was a big concern,” he said, adding that without the state rebate, he would be looking at a payback period of more than 20 years. The high upfront cost and long-term payoff can be a deterrent for those considering solar, said Moreno. But so far, there has been no shortage of applicants for the incentive programs, which are paid for by California ratepayers. California’s four major utility companies have reported long waiting lists and limited funding, prompting the California Public Utilities Commission to scale back the incentive level in January to stretch funding dollars. “Yes, it requires a long payback, but there’s the economic interest as well,” Moreno said. “People feel that if they can reduce their energy costs for the next 20 or 30 years, that’s a payback; 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, Ricchuiti said he was willing to make that long-term investment because “after the payback period, I’ve got a certain amount of free energy.” Although he has more room on his roof for additional solar panels, the incentive program only pays up to one MW, which is solar PV terms, is quite large. Projects less than 30 kW are not eligible for CPUC’s Self-Generation Incentive Program, but the California Energy Commission offers a similar program to help fund projects less than 30 kilowatts in size, known as the emerging renewables program. Steve Schafer, a winegrape grower in Madera County, is in his first year of using a 35 kW solar system to power his 120-acre vineyard and home. He has situated the 3,000-square-foot solar panels on a pasture next to the 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. 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 without paying for it. 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 had been banking plenty of power while his irrigation pumps sat idle. He advises growers who are considering using solar energy to carefully analyze the average amount of power they use in a year because they would not want to build a system that produces more power than what they need. “That’s the only caveat in the system is PG&E is not going to send you a check for any extra power you produce,” Schafer said. What he is getting, however, is credit for power at PG&E’s retail rate, which is a pretty good deal, he said. “What I’m basically doing is I’m 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. So that’s a savings to me. It’s not in what I’m being paid; it’s what I’m not having to pay.” Carl Hoff, president of Butte County Rice Growers Association, which installed a 200 kW solar system more than a year ago, said he is very pleased with the performance of the system. “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,” said Hoff. 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. This is where the governor and other policymakers could step in and help, said Schafer. With Governor Schwarzenegger expressing strong interest in solar and the recent approval by the state Senate of the Million Solar Roofs Initiative, which aims to add 1 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. Article courtesy of the California Farm Bureau Federation
Previous articleOklahoma, Iowa: New Biodiesel Plants Announced
Next articleMinnesota Power Announces Wind Power Plans

No posts to display