Piece contributed by Sean Hood, president Coldwell Solar
Electricity is the lifeblood of many businesses, including agriculture. In California, where electricity costs are high, sunlight is abundant and renewable energy mandates are aggressive, agriculture businesses are turning to solar energy to reduce costs and to protect the soil, water and air that they rely on to make a living.
Sustainability means a secure future
Holland Dairy in Hanford, California, installed a 1-MW system on four acres of the 700+ acre dairy. The goals for owner Art DeHoop are economic and environmental sustainability.
“Sustainability is big in agriculture,” DeHoop said. “We have to be efficient in everything we do. If we’re not sustainable, we won’t be here.” DeHoop wants to ensure his business survives for future generations of the family to enjoy. Holland Dairy’s solar energy system will all but eliminate his electricity bill, which was tens of thousands of dollars each month, and will pay for itself in just a few years.
Mike Faria, co-owner of Faria Farms, shares some of the same concerns. “My brother and my cousins are the second generations of leadership for our businesses, and we are planning for future generations to come after us,” Faria said. “Environmental responsibility is not ‘nice-to-have.’ It’s a business and family imperative. At the same time, everything has to make business sense.”
Headquartered in Tipton, California, Faria has installed a total of 2 MW of solar power. Mike’s system takes advantage of California’s net metering aggregation (NEMA) to offset electricity costs for 27 metered facilities, from remote pumps to large buildings. NEMA allows property owners to apply solar power credits to any metered facility on the property, whether or not it is connected to the solar power system.
Powerful economic benefits
Villa Park Orchards, a fruit packaging company in California’s Central Valley, decided to invest in solar energy as it saw its electricity bill rise. “It was really an economic decision,” said Lori LeSuer, the controller for the company. “In the projections, it was an immediate positive cash flow and also it was about a six-year payback period.” Villa Park installed a 1.1-MW solar energy system that supplies about 75% of its electricity.
Not your average residential rooftop
These are not your average residential rooftop solar installations. Many are considered utility-scale, which some define as 1 MW or higher. That means thousands of solar panels that need to be installed, often in rural areas and on uneven terrain. Building a system that will keep 4,000 panels productive for decades is not a simple feat.
Large ground mounted systems installed in an agricultural setting require some considerations rooftop systems don’t require. The first is soil condition. Soil needs to be tested, especially soil that has been used for farming. Fertilizers, pest control chemicals, and animal waste can leave soil with corrosive elements that can cause problems for metal mounting hardware in the future.
An advantage these systems have over rooftops is that builders can usually get the orientation to the sun that they want, along with automated tracking to maximize sun exposure. The orientation of a rooftop cannot be changed. In an open field, it is usually possible to choose the orientation that will harvest the most energy and avoid shaded areas in most cases.
Building a private utility
A large agricultural project is often the equivalent of building a utility-scale solar system on private property. The productivity and ROI from these systems will only be as good as their long-term performance. In many ways, the most important parts of these projects are the design, engineering and support of the systems. Creating a system that will produce as much power as possible with the least amount of service and maintenance means that the system will have to be optimized for the unique environment where it will be installed.