IMAGE: SOLAR PANELS AT FARM
Gary Kazanjian  /  AP
Pat Ricchiuti stands atop the solar roof at his P-R Farms packing shed in Clovis, Calif.
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updated 6/29/2005 9:25:46 AM ET 2005-06-29T13:25:46

Pat Ricchiuti has always counted on California’s steady sunshine to bring out his peaches’ red blush and juicy, tangy sweetness.

Now, the second-generation farmer is depending on the sun to run the conveyor belts that fill his packing shed, sorting, sizing and packaging 1.5 million boxes of fruit a year.

Ricchiuti is tiling the roof of his 150,000-square-foot shed with 7,730 solar panels. By July 8, the solar rooftop will begin producing 1 megawatt of energy — enough to cut the farmer’s $1.5 million annual energy bill in half.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “This is agriculture doing its part to clean the environment. But it also makes economic sense.”

Vineyards invest as well
Ricchiuti’s P-R Farms may be installing one of the state’s largest privately financed solar energy systems, but other smaller agricultural operations around California have already been looking to the sun to run irrigation pumps, produce coolers and other energy-hungry equipment.

Solar power is making inroads farther north, among the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, where wineries like Fetzer Vineyards, Rodney Strong Vineyards, and Domain Carneros have been turning to sunshine to satisfy their energy consumption.

Solar energy has the potential to be an important part of California’s future, together with conservation and traditional large-scale power plants, said Jim Tischer, a regional program manager for the Center for Irrigation Technology at California State University, Fresno.

“We really have the sunny days, and the growth in population,” he said. “Those energy needs are going to have to be met somehow.”

Solar power works well in rural areas like the Central Valley — one of the nation’s dirtiest air basins — because it doesn’t pollute, it can produce power right where it’s needed, and it’s most available during the long, hot summer afternoons when farm machinery is running full-throttle, Tischer said.

Farmers, packers, shippers and others like the independence of having their own system, and welcome the eco-friendly benefits. But many say they turned to solar because it was a good investment.

Perfect timing
During the hot, dry summer days when cotton grows best, irrigation pumps can work 24 hours a day, ranch foreman Gary Martin said.

After the 2000-01 energy crisis sent electricity bills soaring and brought rolling blackouts, threatening the crop and profit margins, it made sense to try a system that would give farmers control over their energy production, Martin said.

“We’d just spent too much money on power,” he said. “It was out of control.”

The 1,250-acre ranch installed a 36-kilowatt system that went live in 2003. It cost $290,000 to build, but rebates and a one-time state and federal tax credit reimbursed half the cost. Martin expects the system to have paid for itself in seven years.

“After that, it’s money in the pocket,” he said.

Million solar rooftops?
A bill sponsored by state Sen. Kevin Murray would provide a decade’s worth of incentives to help Californians install 1 million rooftop solar energy systems by 2018, up from 12,000 today.

The bill has passed the Senate, 28-3, and is awaiting a hearing in the Assembly. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger supports it as well.

“It’s cheap, it’s clean, it’ll significantly improve our air quality,” Murray said of solar power. And best of all, he said “no trader in some trading room can set the price on the sun.”

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