RICHVALE, Calif.—Butte County Rice Growers Association (BUCRA) will experience a rare treat for ag power users this year when its power bill gets significantly smaller for its large, modern rice drying and storage here.

Energy costs have been added to the short list of things over which farmers and other ag users have no control. Weather is still No. 1. Checks for electricity are among the biggest California agriculture writes each season, and they grow larger each year. BUCRA’s electricity rates have increased more than 40 percent since the rolling blackouts in California three years ago.

BUCRA’s accounts payable department will be able to reduce the $75,000 in checks they normally write to Pacific Gas and Electric by 70 percent this year for the cooperative’s 50 million-pound rice drying and storage facility on Riceston Road near the cooperative Richvale headquarters thanks to a new 200-kilowatt solar energy facility dedicated recently.

The $1.5 million electrical power generating solar plant was built by Minyard Solar Electric of Willits, Calif. Half the cost was rebated back to BUCRA from PG&E’s Self-Generating Incentive Program.

Carl Hoff, BUCRA president, said besides the rebate, the biggest incentive to building the world’s largest rice-drying solar powered electric generating facility was California’s new time-of-use net metering law which permits electricity users like BUCRA to generate electricity from solar or other renewable energy sources and feed it directly into a power grid and receive credit. The new BUCRA solar farm will pump 360,000 kilowatts of power each year into the state’s power grid.

BUCRA will apply that power credit in the fall against its PG&E bills when farmers start trucking their rice to the two large warehouse facilities. Hoff said BUCRA will be feeding electricity into the power grid during the hot summer months when the state most needs it and get credit for it when state electricity demand is lower.

BUCRA’s president said the plant will pay for itself in 11 years, but it has a projected lifespan of at least 25 years. That is the guarantee on the solar panels.

Hoff added that if the same amount of electricity was generated by fossil fuels, it would be pumping 426,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air each year.

Those famous summer blackouts of just two years ago seem like ages ago because the weather has mild last summer and there were no repeats. However, Sacramento Valley rice grower and state assemblyman Doug La Malfa believes blackouts could return sooner than most people expect.

California’s electricity situation is once a gain "in peril," said La Malfa, citing this year’s "March heat wave" in Southern California when another round of rolling blackouts almost occurred.

"Everybody thinks we have solved the problem with all the peaker plants, but we are going to be right back on the edge pretty soon," he said at the dedication.

He supports more hydroelectric power, but environmental regulations are stopping most of those. This leaves solar and biomass as logical alternatives for new energy sources.

"Hopefully, we will see a biomass plant right next to the solar facility in the future," said the BUCRA member.

BUCRA is a 90-year-old farmer owned cooperative that dries and stores about 250 million pounds of rice each year.

e-mail:hcline@primediabusiness.com