The California Energy Commission has been experimenting with new technologies that promise to ease utility bills for agricultural customers while building grid resilience during heat waves and other emergencies. State officials briefed the State Board of Food and Agriculture on these opportunities on Tuesday.
One of the more promising programs works with farmers to shift their electric irrigation pumping to off-peak times, when both demand and rates are low.
“We know there's flexibility with agricultural water pumping,” said Kadir Bedir, a commission supervisor. “But it really depends on the crop, the climate zone, the local water resources. It's a pretty complex algorithm.”
One approach to this is by remotely controlling the water pumps to participate in investor-owned utility programs, which typically run during summer emergency events. The agency has also funded projects using technology from AgMonitor and Irrigation for the Future to tap into dynamic, real-time rates during hours when renewable generation is high. One company, Polaris Energy Services, was able to reduce the agricultural load by 25 megawatts during the summer of 2021, dropping irrigation demand by 7% during grid emergencies. Adding in soil moisture sensors, AgMonitor reached 10 megawatts of load reduction from 10,000 acres of farmland at the same time.
Rhetta deMesa, an advisor to the commission’s transportation research team, explained how the agency has funded the largest collection of microgrids in the nation, investing more than $200 million into 60 projects. She cautioned that no two microgrids are the same and the value and design can vary significantly.
Rural and agricultural microgrids can take advantage of on-farm solar generation, keep the power on for food storage facilities during local outages and save costs when electrifying farm operations by avoiding expensive infrastructure upgrades.
“If [a facility] is processing tomatoes in the summertime and they get a power outage, then they have to dump all those tomatoes,” explained Virginia Lew, a commission supervisor. “[Microgrids] provide some resiliency as a source of backup power.”
Last September the state narrowly escaped a total grid breakdown by having companies turn down or shut off their electrical equipment, according to Lew.
“But when they do that, they couldn’t operate anymore,” she said. “Microgrids provide an extra insurance policy, that if the grid goes down they could still island themselves and operate.”
Blue Lake Rancheria, a remote tribal casino in Humboldt County, has invested in a microgrid through commission grants. During recent winter storms, the campus was able to keep the lights on and house emergency response operations for the county.
The firm Gridtractor has applied a $3 million commission grant to developing an on-farm mobile microgrid on two demonstration sites, including on board president Don Cameron’s farm in Helm. The idea deploys an electric tractor to maintain power facilities during outages like Public Safety Power Shutoffs.
Lew saluted Cameron’s Terranova Ranch for serving as a demonstration site for many different projects, directly applying the research to real-world practices.
“Other farmers are also looking at these opportunities,” said Lew. “You have credibility and you got somebody that is really invested in the project as well.”
The learning lesson Cameron gathered from the experience was that coupling automation with load shifting is critical for long-term viability. He also hopes to see more opportunities for on-farm energy storage.
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The commission has also found opportunities to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions at dairies through advanced sensors, data management, machine learning, and best practices to optimize equipment operations. One research project is attempting to tackle the issue of heat stress in dairy cows, a threat to sustainability and animal welfare that leads to $1.5 billion in annual milk production losses nationwide. Farmers typically solve by spraying water on cows and using fans for air circulation. The researchers are testing artificial intelligence tools to automate the system to gain efficiencies and save energy and water use.
Advocacy groups like the Agricultural Council of California have been instrumental in the commission launching the Food Production Investment Program in 2018. The state has allocated about $124 million from cap-and-trade revenues to 48 projects, according to Lew. It has been one of the state’s most successful programs for reducing climate emissions, costing about $38 per metric ton of carbon dioxide saved. The grants can also support facilities associated with food production, such as cold storage and warehouses.
UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Vice President Glenda Humiston, who serves on the board, hopes to bring more agencies together to work with the commission to resolve challenges in scaling up these emerging technologies—such as in areas of intellectual property, tech transfer, licensing and commercialization.
“We have been seeing some improvements,” said Humiston. “But in my opinion, there's a lot of room for more improvement. We’re at a place where we really could design that together.”
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