Across the agriculture industry, doing more with less has become a mantra. The pressure to increase yields from an ever decreasing availability of tillable land makes farming today particularly challenging, and shows no signs of reversing as population density increases worldwide.
In light of this, growers, producers, and distributors are looking for new ways to optimize efficiency, particularly with regard to energy use – one of the top expenses for farmers and ag operators. One of the ways they’re doing this is by putting their land to work in a new way.
A New Kind of Harvest
Solar installations and solar farms are becoming a frequent sight in California’s Central Valley, where nearly 40 percent of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and other table foods are grown.1 For Golden Empire Shelling (GES) in Buttonwillow, California, adding solar to its almond shelling facilities was a simple business decision.
“I’d looked at solar three or four times over the past 10 years,” GES General Manager John Wynn recalls, “and each time it became more affordable. Now, as an industry we are really at a point where solar makes complete financial sense.”
When Wynn got his start in the almond business nearly 20 years ago, the industry was producing a fraction of the crop it does today. Founded in 2007, GES is a grower-owned, state-of-the-art facility, processing up to 70 million meat pounds of almonds per year. When California’s drought caused yields to decline, Wynn sought an equally state-of-the-art solution that could help cut costs: solar.
While GES is a dry-processing operation, the 45,000-square-foot facility runs 24/7 during the four-month harvest, and maintaining a dust-free operation requires giant Hoover-style vacuums during the process season. With the company’s cost of power increasing an average of 5 percent a year, Wynn recognized the need to drastically reduce or eliminate the company’s electric bill.
That’s when Wynn turned to Jeff Pereira, owner of SunPower by Sun Solar, for a solution. Pereira and his team recommended a ground-mounted system utilizing four acres of land, with a total of 2,400 high-performance solar panels mounted on trackers that follow the sun with precision from daybreak to sundown.
The SunPower® HelixTM system produces more energy than conventional solar systems because of the enhanced performance efficiency of SunPower panels – a key metric to evaluate when considering solar, according to Pereira. Because of their higher performance, GES was able to use less land than projected for the system, an important consideration.
“Land and water come at a premium in our valley, so it was imperative that we get the most value out of our over 4-acre solar installation,” said Wynn. “With the cost-competitive solar generated by our SunPower Helix system, Golden Empire Shelling will be able to dramatically reduce electricity costs and our carbon footprint for at least the next 20 years.”
“Now, as an industry we are really at a point where solar makes complete financial sense.”
John Wynn, General Manager of Golden Empire Shelling
The solar PV (photovoltaic) system at GES now offsets the producer’s electricity use by an average of 90 percent in the peak season. In the off-season, the system outpaces consumption for a credit on the company’s utility bill. In its first year of operation, solar saved GES nearly $400,000. Over the course of the next 20 years, the company expects to save $10 million (read the case study or watch the video).
The system was partially financed with a low-interest loan from Farm Credit West, and the company also took advantage of federal tax credits to offset costs. Wynn says the project will pay for itself in less than five years.
Energy expenditures for agricultural businesses increased 57 percent from 2007 to 2012.2 Since 2012, costs for going solar have decreased 58 percent,3 making it more affordable than ever. There’s never been a better time to go solar. Some ag businesses even choose solar for reasons that have less to do with saving green than producing green.
The growing organic food movement demonstrates the public’s changing tastes in fresh food. In response, food retailers are becoming increasingly concerned with greening their supply chains with sustainably produced products. Going solar enables agribusinesses to deliver true farm-to-table sustainability, with a “light-on-land” approach.
The Rivermaid Trading Company in Lodi, California, produces 50 percent of California’s pear crop and 8 percent of its cherries. Rivermaid invests in sustainable practices like using recycled plastic for packaging and has implemented a water recycling program so as not to rely on well water for landscaping.
Energy consumption at Rivermaid’s packing facility is driven largely by cold storage. With a rooftop system, the company was able to offset 60 percent of electricity use in summer, without using any land.
Rivermaid had been spending $850,000 per year on energy, and with solar expects to cut that bill by 58 percent. Learn more about it by watching this video about their story.
Solar from Coast to Coast
It’s not just in sunny California that solar is taking root. Dairies from Wisconsin to Maine have been going solar at a rapid rate, and some of the best incentives for solar are located in states not typically known for their abundant sunshine, like New York and Minnesota.
At Marlboro Mushrooms in West Grove, Pennsylvania, management made the decision to install solar in 2011. Since then, the ground-mounted system has been providing all the power the company needs to keep grow rooms at a constant temperature and humidity level – without relying on fossil fuel electricity.
“Mushrooms require a constant back and forth between heating and cooling,” explains Tom Brosius, co-owner. “We were looking for a clean energy alternative to offset that consumption.”
Marlboro Mushrooms has dramatically reduced its energy costs since completing the installation. In fact, there have been periods in the summer months when the farm has generated more electricity than it uses. Today, the farm no longer needs to purchase power from the grid – or worry about how much CO2 is being emitted because of their energy consumption.
Going solar has been good for business. In fact, major retail chains have contacted Brosius because they are interested in purchasing mushrooms from the only solar-powered mushroom farm in the world.
How Farms Can Finance Solar
Farms and agricultural operations can pay for solar in three basic ways: cash, lease, or through power purchase agreements that enable businesses to lock in low electricity prices with no upfront costs.
Many banks now offer loans for solar investments and most farms and agricultural operations are eligible for incentives and grants to offset the costs of installing solar. The USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) provides up to 25 percent in assistance toward the cost of renewable energy upgrades for an agriculture or rural small business, and the federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar is equal to 30 percent of the amount invested in an eligible installation (e.g., a farm that invests $100,000 in solar would receive a $30,000 tax credit).
How to Get Started
Farmers have lots of choices when it comes to solar, and it’s best to understand the pros and cons for each particular business. For more information on how solar can work for ag businesses, visit https://us.sunpower.com/agriculture/.
Caption for top photo: The SunPower® HelixTM system at Golden Empire Shelling in Buttonwillow, California.
2 2012 Census of Agriculture, National Agriculture Statistics Service.