In California, it’s not just vulnerable families and critical services that could use battery-backed solar systems to ride through wildfire-prevention power outages. Farms also have critical energy needs, like pumping water to crops on set schedules, or chilling them after harvest, that could face significant disruption under the state’s new wildfire prevention regime.
CalCom Energy, a long-time solar and energy services provider for California’s agricultural sector, thinks it has a solution. This week, the Fresno-based developer launched a $100 million Agriculture Energy Infrastructure Fund, aimed at combining low-cost solar power-purchase agreements with the backup power of energy storage.
The fund, developed in partnership with Symbiont Energy and Live Oak Bank, marks CalCom’s first foray into owning the systems it develops, David Williams, CalCom’s chief commercial officer, noted in Wednesday’s press release. But it’s far from CalCom’s first foray into solving the farm-specific energy challenges facing its customers in the state’s Central Valley.
Since its 2012 founding as CalCom Solar, the Fresno, Calif.-based company has developed more than 200 megawatts of clean energy projects, largely solar projects for farms and water districts. In fact, it’s one of the largest commercial solar developers in the territory of Pacific Gas & Electric, the Northern California utility now in bankruptcy reorganization under the weight of tens of billions of dollars in liabilities from deadly wildfires started by its power lines in 2017 and 2018.
Like many California solar developers, energy storage is playing an ever-increasing role in CalCom’s projects, leading it to rebrand as CalCom Energy last year. Changes to California’s net metering regime, including time-of-use (TOU) rates that reduce the value of midday energy and increase its cost in late afternoon and evening hours, have an outsize effect on commercial solar projects like CalCom’s that rely on meter aggregation for valuing their production.
CalCom also provides metering and billing analysis through its Energy Services management platform, to allow its customers to better manage how they consume electricity in relation to their solar-generated and battery-stored resources. For example, big Salinas Valley grower and shipper D’Arrigo Bros. of California, which has installed about 5.5 megawatts of solar PV through CalCom, has also added two 520-kilowatt batteries at its central cooling facility, to reduce demand charges, shift energy to different TOU periods, and provide backup power to critical loads.
But batteries have become even more critical under the much-expanded wildfire prevention “public safety power shutoff” regimes put in place by PG&E and other California utilities under state regulatory mandate this year. Agricultural customers are huge electricity users, largely to move water — pumping and treating water uses roughly one-sixth of the state’s electricity supply.
In fact, water treatment plants and other water infrastructure are among the classes of “critical services” that have been earmarked for special treatment under the California Public Utilities Commission’s latest revisions to the Self-Generation Incentive Program, which also included $100 million in incentives for disadvantaged or medically vulnerable customers who live in high-fire-threat parts of the state.
But farmers are also dependent on steady and reliable electricity to meet water-pumping schedules that are often fixed by law, or by the needs of its crops and the growing season. Solar-plus-storage projects that promise to reduce overall electric bills, as well as provide backup power, are becoming a far more attractive option than installing expensive and polluting backup generators to insure against a crop-ruining power outage.