HANFORD -- Pistachio grower and processor Chuck Nichols ripped out six acres of nut trees this year and replaced them with a new commodity: solar power.
Nichols flipped the switch Friday on a 1-megawatt solar installation that will provide at least 70% of the power he needs to run his processing plant.
"We are growing a new crop: electricity," said Nichols, a Southern California Edison customer.
Nichols joins a growing number of farmers and agricultural companies using clean energy to run everything from irrigation pumps to processing equipment.
Under a bright sun, Nichols showed off the $5.1 million system Friday to elected officials, farmers and the project's developers.
"This is a very impressive development, and it demonstrates how agriculture can produce its own energy and have a positive impact on the environment," said UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi.
The installation is capable of producing power for an estimated 500 to 800 homes. It was designed and built by a trio of companies: Sol Focus of Mountain View, Bechtel Power Corp. of Maryland, and Sol Orchard of Carmel.
Although many farmers use solar, Nichols' project is the first in the Valley to use the most advanced solar technology known as concentrator photovoltaic.
Unlike conventional panels, this system uses concave collectors that intensify the sunlight and make the solar cells much more efficient.
Along with being more efficient, the system can collect more power from the sun using a smaller footprint. The panels also move as the sun moves, capturing the maximum energy.
Nichols said he invested in solar as part of his company's green philosophy. He recycles all plastic and recaptures the processing plant's water for use on his farm.
Paying for the system was possible in large part thanks to federal and state incentives. The rebates shaved the cost of the project down to $3.2 million, Nichols said.
It also helped that the pistachio industry is booming.
"It has been profitable, and this is how we chose to put it back in the business," Nichols said.
Larger solar projects in the Valley include a 540-kilowatt system at Minturn Huller in Chowchilla; a 1.13-megawatt system at Clovis-based P-R Farms; and Paramount Farms' 1.1-megawatt system covering about 8 acres in Lost Hills in Kern County.
A 60,000-kilowatt system was also installed at Terra Linda Farms in west Fresno County.