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Solar Savings 
Potato operation going green to reduce its power bills 
By SARA HOTTMAN, Herald and News 4/21/11
H&N photo by Sara Hottman  Gold Dust Potato Processors in Malin is
installing solar panels in hopes of reducing its power bills. A state program
designed to help power customers use solar energy is paying some of the costs of installation.
     The massive stretch of solar panels, the length of about five semi-truck trailers end-to-end, looks alien amid the expanse of soil in front of Gold Dust Potato Processors headquarters in Malin.
   But they could cut the operation’s power bills nearly in half, an attractive prospect to an industry facing higher power rates and a higher probability of groundwater pumping because of water regulations.
   The panels cost about $5 per kilowatt hour — a cumulative $750,000 — to install, and each irrigation pump solar panel costs about $5.30 per kWh, about $74,200.  

Together, the operation’s solar panels will produce about 330,000 kWh annually, which a cost-benefit analysis showed will make the initial investment worth the cost.


   “It helps us a little with our bills, and helps us move toward being a greener farming system,” said Lexi Crawford, business manager for Gold Dust Potato Processors, which primarily grows chipping potatoes used for processed foods like potato chips. 
   Incentive program
   The operation took advantage of the Oregon Feed-in Tariff program, which reimbursed one-third of installation costs. Through the program, Pacific Power will pay the operation a monthly rate for the solar power it produces. That money will go toward paying off installation costs.


   During the surface water shortage last year, many farmers turned to groundwater to water their acreage, running up thousands of dollars in electricity bills. Gold Dust pumped groundwater for its fields as well as for the general irrigation system in the Malin-Merrill area, Crawford said.   
   After installing a 10 kilowatt solar panel at one irrigation pump, its bill for 15 days was a credit of almost $200. When the operation starts pumping in May or June, that electricity credit will be put toward its bill.


   Crawford has two large binders of invoices and another filing drawer of information documenting power costs from the processing shed, offices and irrigation pumps. The processing shed and office use about 350,000 kWh annually, and irrigation pumps can run up 140,000 kWh to 240,000 kWh each year.  


   The large solar panels will generate about 150,000 kWh of electricity annually and each irrigation solar panel will generate about 14,000 kWh, all of which will appear as credit on the Pacific Power bill.


   When irrigation pumps are off, the solar panels are still converting sunlight to power for that credit, helping the environment and Gold Dust’s bottom line, Crawford said.     

Side Bars

Oregon Feed-in Tariff   

   The Oregon Feed-in Tariff program was established to offer incentives to businesses and individuals to set up environmentally friendly solar power systems.

   Customers with Pacific Power, Idaho Power and Portland General Electric are entitled to the program, which gives payments to customers for generating power through solar power.

   The program is a pilot until 2014. Visit the Oregon Public Utility Commission website,  www.Oregon.gov/PUC, for participation requirements.

Client requires sustainable practices   

   Frito-Lay is one of Gold Dust Potato Processors’ biggest clients, and it demands its potato growers conform to its sustainable business practices movement, said Tricia Walker Hill, corporate counsel for Gold Dust.

   “They told us farmers that don’t look to take care of the land … are gone,” she said.  

   While the agricultural industry and environmental groups are often at odds, farmers have long said the reality is agriculture nurtures the environment because business depends on it.

   Balin Farms used incentive programs to install solar panels last year.

   Environmentally sound farming practices are linked with quality products, Hill said. They also help save on electricity and chemical costs, and right now are probably pre-empting coming government regulations.

   “We support wildlife habitat restoration … we’re testing to use less chemicals, looking at soil and runoff,” Hill said. “We’re taking steps to be sustainable.”

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