Government incentives make investment pay off
By TIM HEARDEN
RED BLUFF, Calif. -- Michael Vasey had to quickly become an expert on solar energy systems after deciding to install one.
"My knowledge of solar systems was kind of a crash course when we decided to put this in," he told about 30 other farmers during a University of California Cooperative Extension-sponsored workshop here July 28.
"There's a lot of things I don't know, but I really did have to learn a lot," he said. "That's one thing to be considered."
Vasey shared his newfound knowledge with others during the 90-minute session, showing the others around the 600-acre prune, walnut and wheat farm of which he is president.
The farm, Lindauer River Ranch, installed a 260-kilowatt solar system that went live in October. Solar panels are set up at three sites on the farm. Two run irrigation pumps and a third runs a dehydrator.
The operation has also installed variable frequency drives for irrigation, which enables crews to electronically set schedules and water pressures, and uses underground irrigation lines.
Many factors go into a decision of whether to install solar, Vasey told the gathering. Farmers must weigh the cost of a system against the rates they're paying -- and how quickly the rates are rising, he said.
"One thing you have to decide is what kind of system to put in," he said, explaining that some are mounted in a fixed position while others rotate through the day. "Those kinds of systems are more efficient ... but they're also more expensive."
Available space is also a consideration, he advised. Prospective buyers need to think about whether they'd have to take cropland out of production to make room for panels, he said. Also, it's best not to "oversize" your system because Pacific Gas & Electric Co. only pays 4 cents a kilowatt-hour for excess energy, Vasey said.
The systems' equipment must be maintained, he said. Panels have to be washed at least once a year under many performance contracts, but washing usually only requires hosing them off, he said.
The cost of systems is coming down a bit as purchases of solar panels in Europe have slowed, he said. But a lot rides on what kind of state, federal and utility rebates are available, he said.
"This is a $300,000 system, and the energy to water these orchards costs about $9,000 a year," Vasey said, pointing to the ranch's largest array of solar panels. "Without the rebates, it wouldn't have made financial sense."
Coming up with the money to install a system can also be a challenge, he said, because the rebates only come after the system is installed.
Vasey urges people to ask companies for performance guarantees on equipment, such as no less than 90 percent of original capacity after a certain number of years.
"It's hard for them to change prices because they're working with margins," he said. "But with soft things like warranties you can get a little more and it doesn't cost them anything on paper."
The workshop was food for thought for Lee and Barbara Miller, who raise cattle and horses on irrigated land west of Red Bluff. Barbara Miller said the couple is weighing the cost of a system against paying PG&E, adding they want "something just enough to run the ag pump."
"We like to come to these things and see what everyone else is doing," she said.
University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources: http://ucanr.org