Farms are a new market for renewable energy systems, which are using them to lower costs, reduce their carbon footprint, and to increase their ranking as sustainable suppliers, which corporations from Wal-Mart to McDonald's now rate.
"Sustainability has been part of our corporate mission," says Harold Edwards, CEO of a 119-year-old citrus and avocado grower. "It's become this tremendous sales tool for us and enabled us to attract a lot more patronage from our customers," he told Ventura County Star.
Venture County Star cites examples:
An onion grower and processor solved its mounting waste problem - disposing of 300,000 pounds of onion peels each day at a cost of $450,000 a year - with a biogas system.
Instead of throwing it away, the system converts the waste into cattle feed and also powers two fuel cells that now provide about 60% of the farm's energy. The farm runs on a majority of clean energy (some natural gas feeds the fuel cells) and only 0.4% of waste goes to landfills.
The $10.8 million system qualified for a $6.4 million rebate from the state and federal government. And the farm is exempt from air quality permitting.
National retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Safeway, now ask suppliers to complete surveys that rate their sustainability.
Another farm that produces lemons is making the most of its two megawatts (MW) of solar arrays that cover its orchards. They give tours to the public and school groups who want to see the 2,000-acre and 4000 acre-arrays that power irrigation pumps, a packinghouse and 500 cold storage rail cars.
That's helped them get 80 new customers, including the Chipotle restaurant chain and McDonald's, which now source half its lemons there. Chipotle leads the fast food industry in sourcing local, sustainably grown food, and McDonald's rates suppliers annually on sustainability.
A third farm, a large-scale tomato grower, invested $50 million in reduce operating costs while increasing yields. Their 2 MW system includes 5 acres of solar and thermal heating on the 125-acre farm.
It heats six, 20-plus acre greenhouses, and by also recycling and treating water on site, they cut energy and water consumption in half. At the same time, they raised tomato production 100% and reduced emissions by 17 million pounds per year. An 8.8 MW cogeneration plant - the first for a farm, comes online this summer.
The downside for farmers is the time it takes to do the research for these systems and to "wrangle" with government agencies. Although it would be much easier today, some of these farmer pioneers in renewable energy took 10 years to put the deal together.
They not only had to explain the technology to state and local permitting agencies and to lenders, but they had to build the system and prove it worked, before state and federal funding agences would give the money.
The tomato farmer's cogen plant has been delayed because nearby transmission lines have to first be upgraded. It takes patience and determination to make it happen, but in the end they will have a much reduced, fixed cost for energy.
Growers also say it's important to measure energy output, use and emissions data to set targets and get employees involved.
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