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Renewable-energy mandate will raise costs

Issue Date: October 10, 2018
By Kevin Hecteman
Bill Green, education manager of the Advanced Pumping Efficiency Program at Fresno State University, demonstrates ways to monitor irrigation pumps for maximum efficiency at the school's Water, Energy and Technology Center. Research-and-development projects at the center are among ongoing work to enhance efficiency and use of renewable energy in agriculture.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman
Kaomine Vang powers up an irrigation pump at a Fresno State laboratory where new energy-efficient systems are tested and evaluated.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

Updated renewable-energy mandates from the state of California will likely affect energy rates for farmers and ranchers--and add impetus to researchers' studies of further renewable-energy use in agriculture.

Senate Bill 100, signed into law last month, requires that 60 percent of the electricity generated in California come from eligible renewable sources by 2030, and sets 2045 as the target year for all-renewable or zero-carbon power generation.

"It's an artificial timeline without a path to how to get there," said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.

Karen Norene Mills, senior attorney for energy policy with the California Farm Bureau Federation, predicts the renewable-energy mandate will send energy prices higher.

"It's not just with respect to the energy rates, but the renewable requirements and connecting to the sources for renewable energy have required increases in transmission," Mills said.

With the mandates on the horizon, a lot of energy is going into research and development at colleges including Fresno State University, home to the Water, Energy and Technology Center where students and companies test and perfect ideas before taking them to the market.

"We operate an incubator here that has startup companies, and a lot of them are focused on the energy part of agriculture—trying to make sure that we're minimizing those energy inputs," said Sarge Green, a project director at the Fresno State International Center for Water Technology.

Helle Petersen, who manages the WET Center, said its main objective is helping energy companies commercialize technology and services that will benefit ratepayers.

"That also means water technology, because every time you save water, there's an energy saving attached to it," she added.

According to Pacific Gas and Electric Co., 70 percent of the electricity used on California farms goes toward pumping water.

The education manager for the PG&E-sponsored Advanced Pumping Efficiency Program, Bill Green (no relation to Sarge Green), said the program's Mobile Education Center employs a miniature, truck-mounted irrigation system to show farmers how to cut energy use.

"We can demonstrate what happens with pumps when they wear out or the water levels change if it's a deep-well pump, things like that," he said. "We can demonstrate all those different conditions here with this pump and show how it affects energy and cost to pump."

Fresno State researchers are also working on running irrigation pumps with renewable energy.

"We can run about a 50-horsepower motor on solar," hydraulics laboratory manager Kaomine Vang said during one test powered by nine rooftop solar panels.

"We do test the pressure for emitters, valves, different fixtures, joints, sand separators, filtration systems," Vang said. "We want to monitor the pressure, the flow and functionality of the pump and energy use."

State renewable-energy mandates will have additional effects, Farm Bureau's Mills said, as increased reliance on wind and solar energy changes how customers are billed for their electricity.

"We've seen that in the required changes to the time-of-use periods that are embedded in rate schedules," she said, including recent shifts in peak periods from noon-6 p.m. to 4-9 p.m.

"It's really hard for ag to use around that period of time," Mills said. "Pragmatically to ag customers, it's mostly going to be how you get charged for (electricity), which is going to drive how you're supposed to be using it."

Mills said supporters of SB 100 believe storage technology will catch up to the goal.

"One of the big storage opportunities that there is in the state is through hydro," she said, but the bill excludes hydropower projects larger than 30 megawatts from the eligible-renewable list.

"One of the questions that I have is, after 2030— when presumably the requirement is that you procure renewable and carbon-neutral generation—does large hydro fit into that?" Mills said.

Food processors may also wonder where they fit in. John Larrea, director of government affairs for the California League of Food Producers, said food processors are "being put through some hard decisions and some hard positions," for example in respect to use of natural gas.

"(Food processors) need natural gas in order to be able to cook the food to make it both shelf-stable and safe," Larrea said. "There's really no alternatives for us in terms of natural gas."

The economic impact of SB 100 will be greater in the rural areas where farms and producers primarily operate, he said, noting that when costs begin to rise substantially, jobs may be at risk.

Last year, the state launched the Food Production Investment Program with $60 million from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, with the goal of providing grants, loans or financial incentives to help producers reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Larrea said this is the sort of program needed to help processors meet state mandates.

At Fresno State, Petersen said the WET Center intends to act as a middleman between startup companies creating energy-efficient systems and the farmers who would use them.

"Whatever comes out of here has to be sound and something we can put our name behind," she said.

Sarge Green said he believes agriculture has an inherent advantage in the fight against carbon.

"Farming already, as far as I'm concerned, contributes tremendously by growing plants," he said. "It's extracting CO2 out of the air. So we're talking about the inputs end of farming necessary to try and meet these lofty goals."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be reached at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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