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Arbuckle's Strain Ranch flips the solar switch
Dane Nissen was critical of all the solar company representatives in Priuses approaching Strain Ranch in Arbuckle where he is the warehouse manager.
"I've seen 25 of these guys in a month. Almost all of these guys are selling contracts to larger companies," said Nissen.
His boss, Rick Strain, had been equally frustrated.
"We'd spoken to 15 or 20 different companies and they all had different problems. Their warranties weren't good and they weren't American-made," said Strain, owner of Strain Ranch.
Still, Strain Ranch joined other companies in agriculture and flipped the switch to turn on a 902-kilowatt solar array in January, offsetting the energy cost of their rice drying and storage facilities.
Strain Ranch held a ribbon cutting with SolarWorld, North State Solar Energy and Enphase Energy for the project on Tuesday.
"Solar use is widespread among California rice in warehouses and milling preparation; there is widespread adoption," said Jim Morris with the California Rice Commission.
Daniel O'Connor, a renewable energy consultant with Pacific Land & Energy, has seen an increase in agricultural use of solar systems.
"Agriculture has been strong the last couple years. Installing solar is a great opportunity to invest in the future, if the market turns or they get some lean years. If they severely reduce electrical cost its going to make their business more profitable because they won't have that cost," said O'Connell.
A program called the California Solar Initiative allows commercial businesses generating electricity on-site to sell the power back to the grid.
The system works well for rice dryers and millers because the solar arrays on-site are producing power all year, including in California's peak energy consumption months of the summer. The warehouse dryers are mostly consuming energy in the late fall, during off-peak energy consumption times.
"We generate power during peak summer months, which benefits California. But we get credited that power on our bill and then when we need it, we use it when we have large energy consumption," said Carl Hoff, with the Butte County Rice Growers Association.
"The utility acts like your battery. When you aren't consuming energy it goes back to the grid. All summer long you are exporting energy at the peak rates," said O'Connell.
The growers association, a cooperative of 400 rice farmers in Northern California, installed its first solar array in 2004.
"We were the first one in the industry to do this. It's amazing how the industry has blossomed. It's unbelievable," he said.
His company installed panels made by Sharp, a Japanese company.
"We installed 25-year rated panels and so far the yearly degradation that was supposed to happen has been less than estimated," said Hoff.
Even though solar panel prices have significantly decreased since the purchase, they are happy with the decision.
"Panels have come down dramatically. It was still the right thing to do. We're happy with the payback schedule."
The association installed a second 200 kilowatt array in 2009.
The major difference between the two systems shows a development in technology over the past decade. Their original system had fixed panels that didn't move to track the sun. The new system has a dual tracker, which moves horizontally and vertically.
"With the dual tracker, we're getting 40 percent more power than the other system," said Hoff.
Strain was caution about moving forward with a solar array in part because of how quickly technology develops. He wanted to invest at the right time and in the right system.
"We put it off for a long time. With any technology, its changing so much. We finally decided to go for it," said Nissen. "Rich made the move at the right time."
The major technological difference in their system is the use of micro-inverters instead of centralized inverters.
An inverter converts DC electricity to AC electricity. Micro-inverters are attached to each solar module, while centralized inverters are hooked up to long stings and sections of solar panels.
"With a micro-inverter, if one panel goes down, you aren't losing energy production," said Bill Rossi with Enphase Energy of Petaluma, which produced the inverters.
"It's like the Christmas light effect. If one light is out, the whole string is lost. In traditional inverters, if one panel is out, the whole line of panels is disintegrated," said Rossi.
Strain Ranch is now the second largest micro-inverter system in the world, and the only system used in the rice industry.
Nissen and Strain said they it was important for the companies they work with to be based in the United States and have American-made products.
The solar panels on the new array were made in Portland, Oregon by SolarWorld, installed by North State Solar Energy of Forest Ranch.
"If we have an issue, I know where they live," said Nissen.
One reason the industry began installing solar systems was for environmental sustainability.
"California rice industry is really involved in sustainability and the environment. It's a big deal to keep us around here and take care of the environment we live in," said Dave Lohman of California Family Foods, which has a large solar array.
The systems have been part of a plan for economic sustainability as well.
"Takes a few years to pencil out, it's a pretty large investment. It'll make us more competitive because PG&E will raise rates. We're always looking for ways to cut costs," said Lohman.
"It was a smart decision by our board of directors. We've been here for 90 years, and we're hoping to be here for 90 more," said Hoff.