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Farms Must Find Their Power
from Renewable Sources

by Don Curlee
Capital Press, December 16, 2005

What agricultural operations of all sizes have in common are outbuildings. What outbuildings have in common are roofs, and roofs are some of the best places to hang solar panels, which are appearing more frequently on California farms as power generating systems.

One of the biggest installations was completed this past summer at P-R Farms in Clovis in Fresno County. Solar panels cover the roof of a 150,000-square-foot packinghouse, feeding a 928-kilowatt system, which is enough to supply about half of the power used each summer in the large fruit packing operation.

Owner Pat Ricchiuti regards solar power as the cleanest source of energy and a rebate offer from Pacific Gas & Electric made the $6.4 million installation feasible.

He is pleased that the setup will help ease the pressure on the high demand for power in the summer. The packinghouse shuts down in the winter months, but its need for power coincides with warmer, sunnier weather. He believes his $3.2 million share of the installation will pay for itself in about 10 years.

In Santa Maria, Teixera Farms has installed a 112-kilowatt solar unit atop a large parking structure. Although the cost was just under $1 million, general manager Mark Teixera believes the rebate from the power company and income tax credit of 30 percent will shrink his actual expenditure to about $300,000.

The power generated by the solar panels at Teixera's is used to operate three of the farm's 25 wells. While the Santa Maria location doesn't receive the blazing summer sun that drives Ricchiuti's system in the San Joaquin Valley it is perfectly suited to translate the sun's rays to electricity.

Whatever the crops or the location where they are grown, summer and full sun support them. Power requirements peak for most agricultural uses when the sun shines brightest, making solar a perfect fit for supplying farm power.

Power from another source has been announced recently by the dairy industry, with promising potential in California, the nation's largest dairy state. The raw material is cow manure, and the end product is methane gas.

Methane so derived can be a substitute for natural gas to power motor vehicles and generate electricity. Known as biomethane, the gas is entirely renewable, environmentally friendly and produced locally.

Using the gas involves processing the manure in a digester and then upgrading it to vehicle-fuel quality. Sweden already operates 20 plants that produce biomethane and it runs 2,300 buses on the output. The technology for converting dairy manure to biomethane is now used at several landfills in the United States.

With 1.7 million dairy cows in California the state has a potential of producing about 140 billion cubic feet of methane per year. A number of dairies are capturing the gas and using it to produce electricity. The next step to reach vehicle fuel levels is not particularly large.

If those dairy barns and other buildings can be outfitted with solar panels the package of power production might exceed the energy derived from the cheese, butter and milk, even when vitamin D is added - to the milk, of course.

Nobody has reported yet on the benefits of adding vitamin D to the manure.

Don Curlee is a veteran ag publications editor and ag freelancer who writes on a variety of farm-related topics from Clovis, Calif.
Farms Must Find Their Power from Renewable Sources
Capital Press, December 16, 2005

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