Pat Ricchiuti has always counted on California's steady sunshine to bring out his peaches' red blush and juicy, tangy sweetness.
Now, the second-generation farmer is depending on the sun to run the conveyor belts that fill his packing shed, sorting, sizing and packaging 1.5 million boxes of fruit a year.
Ricchiuti is tiling the roof of his 150,000-square-foot shed with 7,730 solar panels. This past week, the solar rooftop was expected to begin producing 1 megawatt of energy -- enough to cut the farmer's $1.5 million annual energy bill in half.
"It's the right thing to do," he said. "This is agriculture doing its part to clean the environment. But it also makes economic sense."
Ricchiuti's P-R Farms may have one of the state's largest privately financed solar energy systems, but smaller agricultural operations around California have already been looking to the sun to run irrigation pumps, produce coolers and other energy-hungry equipment.
Solar power is making inroads farther north, among the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, where wineries such as Fetzer Vineyards, Rodney Strong Vineyards and Domain Carneros have been turning to sunshine to satisfy their energy consumption.
Solar energy has the potential to be an important part of California's future, together with conservation and traditional large-scale power plants, said Jim Tischer, a regional program manager for the Center for Irrigation Technology at California State University at Fresno.
"We really have the sunny days and the growth in population," he said. "Those energy needs are going to have to be met somehow."
Solar power works well in rural areas such as the Central Valley -- one of the nation's dirtiest air basins -- because it does not pollute, it can produce power right where it is needed, and it is most available during the long, hot summer afternoons when farm machinery is running full-throttle, Tischer said.
Farmers, packers, shippers and others like the independence of having their own system, and welcome the eco-friendly benefits. But many say they turned to solar energy because it is a good investment.
During the hot, dry summer days when cotton grows best, irrigation pumps can work 24 hours a day, ranch foreman Gary Martin said.
After the 2000-2001 energy crisis sent electricity bills soaring and brought rolling blackouts, threatening crops and profit margins, it made sense to try a system that would give farmers control over their energy production, Martin said.
"We'd just spent too much money on power," he said. "It was out of control."
The 1,250-acre ranch installed a 36-kilowatt system that went live in 2003. It cost $290,000 to build, but rebates and a one-time state and federal tax credit covered half the cost. Martin said he expects the system to pay for itself in seven years.
"After that, it's money in the pocket," he said.