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

Concentrated solar goes commercial

Concentrated photovoltaic technology appears to be emerging as a serious contender in the solar energy field.

French semiconductor manufacturer Soitec reported today that the company's concentrated photovoltaic, or CPV, system in Jordan reached daily peaks of 25 percent efficiency, "two to three times higher than standard photovoltaic installations" over the summer and fall. Soitec acquired 80 percent of Concentrix Solar, a CPV supplier, about a year ago.

In October, Mountain View, Calif.-based SolFocus Inc. announced plans it was teaming with Vision Electro Mechanical Co. to build a 300-megawatt CPV installation in Saudi Arabia's Bahra region.

Concentrated solar squeezes more electricity out of the sun's rays than conventional panels, using advanced optics to concentrate the sun's rays onto solar cells. It's come a long way since I wrote about a San Jose start-up attempting the same thing on an Alaska project back in the late 1980s.

Conventional solar panels without optics come in three varieties: thin film, polycrystalline and monocrystalline, with the latter generally the most efficient and thin film on the tail end. However, the efficiency rating of the best doesn't quite reach 15 percent, according a comparison by

Efficiencies in the lab report big gains in various technologies but lag in commercial application. And that's what makes the implications of Soitec and SolFocus projects so interesting.

The big divide between renewable energy and that derived from fossil fuels is cost per kilowatt. Until recently, solar, wind and other renewable sources came with a premium that only government rebates, subsidies or feed-in tariffs made palatable to developers. However, efficiencies, technological changes and fossil fuel price increases are bringing parity within reach.

Should solar become competitive on a cost-per-kilowat basis, more people will be interested in adding the technology.

Hansjorg Lerchenmuller, a senior vice president at Soitec, said his company's CPV technology has proven itself with "very high performance even under very high temperatures. ... We are ready for high-volume deployment."

SolFocus CEO Mark Crowley dubbed CPV "the world's most efficient and resource-friendly solar technology," while in the same statement Hassan Chahine, Vision Electro general manager, said he believes the Bahra plant "will serve as a model for the further research and study of clean water and power solutions that diversify the region's energy mix."

No dollar figures were disclosed, but investment will be substantial. Many others will be watching and evaluating, eager to learn if either gamble pays off.

Photo: SolFocus concentrated solar panels.