green farmers

The Winds Of Change Propel Clean Energy

It was in the 1980s when I first became interested in renewable energy. I was just entering my 30s and working in the newsroom of the Palm Springs Desert Sun, a daily newspaper serving the desert communities east of Riverside.

Palm Springs is a gateway to the San Gorgonio Pass, one of the windiest spots in California. I covered the attorneys in the county courthouse and the emerging wind industry (the hot air beat), which was taking advantage of the seemingly unrelenting breezes and tax breaks to grow the renewable-energy industry.

I was fascinated by the turbines beginning to pop up on the hilltops. I still get excited when they appear as backdrops in a movie or television show. (Did you see them on the first episode of last season's Amazing Race?) The whap-whap of the turbine blades was an interesting scenic diversion, even though they, in the 1980s, seemed to me like little more than a novelty.

Fast forward more than two decades, and wind energy is serious business. Today, windmills could power 829,000 households - nearly double since 2002- and projections call for wind to provide 5% of the state's electricity by 2013, according to calWEA, a nonprofit in California supported by the wind industry.

Much of that power comes from the Altamont Pass outside Tracy, the area near Palm Springs and the Tehachapi Wind Farm, just off the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley, which has been my home for almost 25 years. I live near Fresno, which doesn't have many wind turbines but is I'm-burning-the-hair-off-my-head hot during the summer. Thus, solar energy is gaining a larger profile, as evidenced by dozens of projects proposed between Stockton and the base of the Grapevine.

Agriculture operations are among the expanding users of solar energy in the Valley. Check out the latest from a pistachio processor in Tulare County, who just hooked up to the sun to help run his business. California led the nation in 2009 with almost 2,000 growers and ranchers generating electricity from renewable power, according to this report.

Sure, wind and solar remain bit players in the overall energy arena, but they are clearly gaining stature. I can almost hear the renewables movement picking up speed as large and small businesses take up the mantle of clean energy.

Companies such as Whole Foods, Intel and Kohl's are among the world's largest purchasers of renewable energy, according to this new study. In fact, Intel and Whole Foods buy all of their energy from renewable sources (Whole Foods uses only wind energy).

Clearly, those two companies, and the others on the list, are sending a signal: Going green is good socially and economically. I'm sure they wouldn't be doing it if it didn't generate green to the bottom line as well. Check out this report from a pilot program in Wisconsin.

Big Business and the military, which has declared its dependence on fossil fuel a national security issue, are leading the clean energy (which includes efficiency) charge, and helping fuel some economic growth. This story out of Milwaukee notes that the military's solar program was responsible for a manufacturer adding a second shift.

This all comes despite legislators who want to slash programs. I can't help but think we are on the ground floor of a green revolution.

Solar and Water: A Powerful Combination

Many people equate solar power with rooftops, and that's true. More property owners - commercial and residential - are installing solar panels on their roofs to cut power bills and carbon footprint. Check out what Toys 'R' Us is doing in New Jersey, and what officials in Los Angeles want to do.

But solar energy is popping up all over the place. In backpacks. With the military in Afghanistan. On parking structures and as window coverings. And, increasingly, on or around water.

Solar is appearing at wastewater treatment plants, vineyard irrigation ponds and in settling ponds at gravel mines. There is even the possibility of solar panels on oceans. This New York Times piece, which I read in the San Jose Mercury-News, features wineries in Northern California that moored solar panels in ponds to help produce power.

Vineyard real estate is pricey, and this is a way to conserve precious land. Larry Maguire, chief executive of Far Niente Winery, put it this way in the story: "Vineyard land in this part of the Napa Valley runs somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000 per acre. . . We wanted to go solar, but we didn't want to pull out any vines."

Solar-energy systems also are gaining a stronger following here in the San Joaquin Valley, where power bills run high in the summer, and agriculture-related companies use lots of power and water.

The cities of Tulare and Madera use solar at their wastewater plants, which helps reduce energy costs. Learn more about those projects here and here. This Sign on San Diego story has more on how solar works at such plants.

The San Joaquin Valley has some of the most resourceful and efficient farmers in the World. Look for more water-related solar projects; it is a powerful combination.

Photo of solar array at Far Niente Winery by

Grants Available For Farmers, Rural Businesses To Test Clean Energy

Farmers and small rural businesses who gain at least half of their income from agriculture operations can apply for federal grants to test renewable power.

The Rural Energy for America Program will provide funds for feasibility studies on certain types of renewable-energy systems. Projects based on solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, hydro and hydrogen are among those eligible for consideration. The applicant must own the project, and operate it in a rural region.

The Rural Energy for America Program is designed to help agricultural producers and rural small businesses reduce energy costs and consumption. The 75 grants are awarded on a competitive basis and can be up to 25% of total eligible project costs. Grants are limited to $50,000 for renewable-energy feasibility studies.

Applications are due June 30. Learn more at this link.

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

Valley Farmers Turning To The Sun To Power Their Operations

We've written time and again about how the San Joaquin Valley is ideal for solar and other types of renewable-energy programs. That's due in part because the land is flat - and there is lots of it - and because leaders of the region's largest economy are discovering the power of alternative energy.

Farming is a $20 billion enterprise here. Valley growers produce nuts, fruits and vegetables that are sold worldwide. Agriculture requires much energy, and farmers are increasingly turning to renewable sources to provide that power.

Here are some examples, including a blog that details how California growers lead the nation in the production of renewable energy. Today's Los Angeles Times showcases a new 6-acre array of solar panels that will provide 70% of the power to a pistachio orchard. Here's a press release on the announcement.

We expect solar and other types of alternative to expand in the resource-rich and geographically-blessed San Joaquin Valley as pressure mounts to meet a 33% statewide renewable-energy standard that awaits Gov. Brown's signature.

The Valley, with thousands of acres of available land, ample sun, a mid-state location close to major population centers and University of Merced's cutting-edge research, could be positioned to be a leader in renewable energy.