According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), America’s solar industry continues to expand at a record pace as more and more farmers discover the advantages of a solar irrigation system. California leads the way in solar power, with more than 25 GW of installed capacity. According to the SEIA, “the cost to install solar has dropped by more than 70-percent in the past decade.”

As the price of solar components declines, more California farmers are looking to solar energy. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) notes that solar costs continue to decrease for both “standalone photovoltaics and PV-plus-storage.” NREL graphs illustrate dramatic year-over-year cost reductions in solar equipment.

California farmers take advantage of these lower costs by embarking on various renewable energy projects. Some invest in large-scale solar installations. Others commit to the use of a solar irrigation system, due to its multiple advantages both economically and environmentally.

Large Solar Farm With Rows of Solar Panels and Partly Cloudy Weather

Overview: Solar Power and California Agriculture

A July 2019 article in the Los Angeles Times offers a detailed look at solar technology and California agriculture. The article profiles a Fresno-based grower of oranges and almonds that devoted 160 acres of unused land to a 20 MW solar project. Another 100 MW solar project will follow in the near future. Solar projects like these and solar irrigation systems with all their advantages will help the state meet ambitious renewable energy goals. In fact, in 2018, the state of California set a 100-percent clean energy goal for 2045.

Making Idle Farmland Productive

California agriculture and solar power development are a great match due to the amount of land with poor soil and/or inadequate access to water. At the height of California’s drought, NASA, in collaboration with the USDA, estimated that growers in the Central Valley left 1.03 million acres idle throughout 2015. This land could easily be put to use producing clean solar energy!

Significant Energy Savings

Many California growers oversee energy-intensive operations that benefit from on-site energy production. For example, Fruit Growers News profiled a grower who required more than $200,000 worth of electricity every year. Their operations include activities like hauling, shelling, and processing almonds. The payback period for the grower’s solar installation was just six years. Imagine the economic advantages of solar irrigation systems for farmers if these systems were used around the state!

Blue Tractor in Foreground With Solar Panel in Behind on a Nice Day

Solar Applications in California’s Irrigation Industry

Irrigation is a big deal in California agriculture. It accounts for approximately 80 percent of all water used by the state’s homes and businesses. Every advancement in agriculture has a positive ripple effect across the economy. This includes the innovative technology that is driving solar-powered irrigation and its advantages for California farmers.

The State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program

From 2014 to 2019, the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP) funded irrigation system improvements. The program saved water and reduced GHG emissions. Initially, the program was a response to the extreme drought conditions that were prevalent in the state at that time.

Altogether, the SWEEP funded more than 600 projects — many of them solar. Together, these deployments will deliver annual water savings equivalent to 50,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The projects also yielded an annual reduction of 75,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide — the amount emitted by 16,000 cars!

The Economic Impact of Efficient Irrigation Systems

Growers are the prime beneficiaries of the advantages of solar-powered irrigation systems. California is the nation’s leading producer of fruits, nuts, and berries. According to Fruit Growers News, 2017 California’s revenue from all crops totaled $33.4 billion. Of that, fruits, nuts and berries brought in $19.7 billion.

Drip Irrigation and Water Savings

Drip irrigation is already popular in areas with high temperatures and scarce water supplies. California’s record drought drove interest in drip irrigation, as the technique eliminates much of the evaporation that occurs with sprinkler systems. Drip irrigation uses a precise mix of pipes, valves, and hoses to deliver water directly to a plant’s roots. This saves water and reduces fertilizer loss.

Future Opportunities for Solar Irrigation Systems

The California Climate & Agriculture Network (CalCAN) highlights several opportunities for introducing solar-powered irrigation systems and enjoying their advantages:

  • Improved irrigation scheduling using soil, plant or weather-based sensors
  • Replace or convert fossil fuel pumps
  • Upgrade or convert to drip irrigation, micro-irrigation, and low-pressure irrigation systems

Today, solar-powered pumps are increasingly used to supply water. In addition, solar-powered sensors are increasingly used to deliver it with less fuss and more precision than ever.

Solar-Powered Sensors and Their Advantages for Solar Irrigation Systems

In May 2019, Forbes profiled a California startup that focuses on soil moisture monitoring. The company manufactures solar-powered irrigation sensors that are fitted with soil probes. In the past, growers spent many hours driving from field to field to monitor irrigation needs. Now, it’s possible to monitor irrigation status remotely from one’s computer or smartphone.

How Solar Sensors Can Save Water and Energy

Decreased solar costs, innovative sensor technology, and cloud-based communications are a perfect trifecta. The new technology is ideal for growers who want to take their solar-powered irrigation system advantages to the next level.

In one case study involving a 40-acre solar powered test plot, a California vegetable grower deployed the sensors. Water use declined six percent. Also, greenhouse gas emissions declined five percent. The grower also saved fuel ordinarily required to pump water and power the trucks used to check the fields.

How Solar Irrigation Sensors Work

The zero-maintenance, solar-powered sensors, and soil probes are strategically placed at intervals across fields where they can gather data relating to soil moisture. The sensors’ ultra-low-power long-range radio (LoRa) signals use very little power. There’s a single small solar cell on each sensor. It powers the system — even in low light.

Once data is collected by the sensors, this information is beamed to a communications hub via a secure LTE wireless network. A cloud-based application automatically analyzes the information. The grower controls the timing of their solar irrigation system to their greatest advantage based on the information received. By stabilizing the moisture content of the soil, sensor-based irrigation systems can also increase yields.

A farmer touching a tablet device with a green field in the background.

Solar-Powered Pumps

The Horticulture Innovation Lab at UC-Davis notes the advantages of solar-powered irrigation system pumps for cutting electricity costs and reducing labor requirements.

With the right assistance, growers can create a cost-effective system comprised of photovoltaic (PV) panels, drip irrigation kits, and 12-volt pumps. An effective filtration system is also essential for efficient operation. Solar pumps are particularly effective in both remote and hilly settings.

Calculating Your Solar Irrigation System Needs to Enjoy the Advantages

The Horticulture Innovation Lab says a simple 50-watt solar panel can power a 12-volt pump. Such a pump is capable of moving 350-700 gallons of water per hour to a water storage tank. From there, gravity feeds the water to the drip irrigation system.

Fortunately, the materials needed to build your solar irrigation system are typically available from local suppliers. Examples include storage tanks, filters, irrigation tape/tubing, wiring, piping, valves, and fittings.

Solar Pumps Red With Blue Sky in the Background and Grass Behind

System pumping water for agriculture, with the control unit powered by solar energy

Future Prospects for Solar Power in California

Three important trends will drive further adoption of solar irrigation systems to the advantage of California’s growers:

  • The declining cost of solar components and installation
  • California’s ambitious clean energy goals
  • Advances in solar-powered sensor technology and solar-powered pumps

Other Factors that Are Making Solar Irrigation Systems More Advantageous for Farmers

In addition to the trends listed above, a growing synergy of sensor technology, wireless communication, smartphone applications, and cloud-based data storage bodes well for solar-assisted irrigation in the future. The promotion of solar-powered drip irrigation by the Horticulture Innovation Lab is also driving sustainable trends. The team at HIL promises to continue testing new components that will drive further solar system efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

Final Thoughts

At Fruit Growers Supply, we’ve been devoted to meeting the needs of California’s growers since 1907. We offer commercial irrigation expertise that may benefit your operation. We design and install cutting-edge solar irrigation systems to provide more advantages to growers. Once your solar power California system is in place, look to us for maintenance, parts, and repairs.

Fruit Growers Supply has convenient locations in Santa Paula, Woodlake, Porterville, and Orange Cove. We can also recommend sources for photovoltaic (PV) panels and other solar equipment. For further assistance, please call us at (909) 256-0118 or contact us online.

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