Hanford Farmer Harvests The Sun

A pistachio grower near Hanford who uses sun-tracking technology to run 70% of his operations says going solar fits an industry that depends upon natural resources for its product.

"As an integrated grower, processor, and marketer of pistachios, I appreciate the value of harnessing natural resources in an efficient, sustainable manner," said Chuck Nichols, owner of Nichols Farms.

Nichols just installed SolFocus technology on six acres adjacent to his processing facility. SolFocus uses a system of reflective optics to concentrate sunlight onto small, highly efficient solar cells. The system uses uses dual-axis tracking for consistent energy delivery and, as a result, will produce an estimated 2,244 kilowatts of energy the first year, according to this press release.

The project was the culmination of efforts by Nichols, SolFocus, Bechtel Power Corp. and developer Sol Orchard. Jeff Brothers, president of Sol Orchard, introduced the concept to Nichols Farms, and Bechtel designed and built the system.

"I’m a big believer in two things - energy independence and the American farmer’s ability to get us there," Brothers said. "This is another great project where the farmer is benefiting his operation, and the grid as well. Chuck is offsetting 70% of his pistachio processing facility’s energy load, and is hedging against future energy price spikes."

He also is helping the transmission grid. "There is less load to travel over congested lines to reach his facility in Hanford," Brothers said. "Very futuristic thinking and very progressive, which is an apt description of Chuck Nichols.” Nichols is the latest grower in the Valley to incorporate renewable power into its operations. It is a trend that appears to be gaining appeal in California. You can read more about that here and here.

As the Valley's largest industry - about $20 billion in 2009 - and a large user of energy, agriculture is ripe for alternative forms of power. Proponents contend that renewable power could be another another "cash" crop in the Valley, which is an intriguing prospect in a region with unemployment rates that surpass Appalachia, low incomes and heart-stopping utility bills.

And why not? The Valley has ample sun; lots of available, inexpensive and unproductive farmland; wind turbines on its northern and southern tips; warehouses in Fresno and Tulare counties that have expanses of rooftop power-generating capability; and a burgeoning population.

The potential is so good, in fact, that University of California, Merced, which does new research into solar energy, thinks the region from Stockton to the Grapevine could become "Solar Valley."

Photo by SolFocus