The California pistachio harvest is complete for 2011, but Setton Pistachio in Terra Bella, Calif., continues to hum, processing and packaging the crop at a plant powered in large part by the same sun that nurtured the crop in the orchards.
Setton’s managers are hoping the solar power system it unveiled this summer will add some California pistachio-like green to the operation’s bottom line. And they hope this step toward going green will have a payoff for energy credits earned.
“We view this as an investment we are making by lowering our carbon footprint,” said Lee Cohen, general manager at Setton, the nation’s second largest pistachio processor.
The solar system is expected to save the company an estimated $14 million in energy costs over the next 25 years, and it could offset 1,880 metric tons of carbon emissions annually.
The system includes 7,600 modules — each weighing 44 pounds — at plants in Terra Bella and 8 miles west in Pixley, Calif. Capable of generating 1.7 megawatts of power, it’s the largest private system of its kind in the Central Valley, a place where solar systems for agricultural operations abound. Solar panels cover 7.5 acres.
Outside the Terra Bella plant, Cohen gave a tour of the installation, which includes carports on which modules are mounted, as well as ground level modules in a fenced area.
Cohen said employees welcomed the covered parking: “It’s great to be able to get into your car and not have to deal with a hot steering wheel that burns your fingers and not to have to crank up the air conditioning.”
The carports are expected to cut emissions that would otherwise result after vehicles sit under the searing San Joaquin Valley sun and drivers rush to fire up air conditioners.
The solar panels are covered with dust from the pistachio harvest and the transport of nuts into the processing plant. They’re no longer the dark blue they were in mid-July when the system was unveiled.
However, Cohen said the dust has not impaired performance of the system, something he can track on a display panel just inside the entrance to the plant. The panel is on a wall beside a rack holding Setton pistachios for display.
And it’s expected a rain or two will take much of the grime off the panels. There are also plans to possibly put micro sprinklers among the panels for periodic cleaning. Moreover, the provider of the system — as part of its contract — will do periodic “touch-free” cleaning of the modules.
The solar power system designed by Cenergy Power of Merced will produce more than 2.6 million kilowatt hours of clean energy each year that will be used to sort, roast and package an estimated 80 million pounds of pistachios annually at Setton.
Cohen said the company had considered turning to solar for years, but the payback period previously took too long.
“Then the price for solar panels dropped,” he said, and that and other developments meant a greatly reduced payback likelihood — now pegged at just under four years for a system that cost $6 million paid up front by Setton compared to previous expectations of payback in seven to 10 years.
The federal government will pick up $1.8 million of that in the form of a cash grant. And net metering of excess power into Southern California Edison’s grid should wipe out another $1.8 million of the cost.
Cohen said the sales to Edison are resulting from the California Solar Initiative that requires power companies to buy power at 22 cents per kilowatt for the first five years of the system’s operation.
In other steps to greener operation, Setton recycles the water it uses in pistachio processing and uses it to irrigate orchards. It also turns all of its hull waste from nut processing into cattle feed, keeping 300 million pounds of waste out of Central Valley landfills each year.
“They seem to be on the leading edge of things,” said Tim Peltzer, president of Peltzer Farm Management in Porterville, which farms 600 acres of pistachios from northern Kern County to Lindsay. The company markets its own pistachios through Setton and farms 60 acres for them.
Setton owns and farms thousands of acres of pistachios, in addition to marketing for independent growers.
Peltzer, who was among growers attending the unveiling of the solar project in mid-July, said he’s “happy that Setton is here. I think they might be the check for Paramount. A little competition is a good thing.”
Paramount Farming is far and away the No. 1 pistachio processor.
Investing in California
Porterville Mayor Ron Irish, who also attended the unveiling of the project, said Setton’s actions are important at a time when businesses are being lured away from California.
“You don’t invest that amount of money and leave,” he said, noting that the plant employs a number of Porterville residents at a range of wages. “In the environment we have in the state of California, it’s an understatement to say that what they did in terms of contributing to growth and independence is important.”
Installing a solar power project helps processors “to pass on savings and provide more value to their growers,” said, Nader Yarpezeshkan, director of sales and marketing for Cenergy, which has offices in San Diego and Merced.
In addition to the Setton installation, Cenergy has done many commercial agricultural projects in the Central Valley, as well as some “solar farming” industrial projects for utility companies.
Yarpezeshkan said 90 percent of Cenergy’s solar projects on the commercial side are agricultural, ranging from solar for pumping to cooling and to processing agricultural products.
“It’s a hedge on inflating energy costs,” he said. For a pistachio processor, for example, use of solar energy is a way to enable it to play “a global game” and be more sustainable in that world market.
Yarpezeshkan said the installation at Setton is the equivalent of planting 400 acres of pine forest annually.
He said it’s no surprise that agricultural users are turning to companies like his. He pointed to statistics from the California Energy Commission in 2009 that said that pumping water, refrigeration, processing and other farm-related uses amounted to 75 percent of all electricity consumed in the Central Valley.
Jeff Gibbons, grower relations manager for Setton, said pistachio processors that have turned to solar include the nation’s four largest, all in California: Paramount, Setton, Nichols and Primex.
Gibbons said the installation at Setton was “seamless” and is a major boost for reduced energy cost. “And it produces energy right here, taking pressure off the grid,” he said. “It produces power where the need is.”
Gibbons said the weather was favorable this year for pistachio production in California, which leads the nation at about 98.5 percent of the crop. He said, for example, there was not the problem of spiking temperatures soaring above 100 degrees during much of the harvest.
Richard Matoian, executive director of American Pistachio Growers (formerly Western Pistachio Growers), said sizes were larger this year and a cool spring contributed to that. He added that insect damage was low and quality appears good.
Last year was marked by a record crop of 528 million pounds, and this year the total is expected to be a bit over 450 million pounds. Pistachios are an alternate bearing crop.
Grower field prices for last year’s crop, while variable, set records at around $2.50 per pound. This year, prices are in the $2.10 range.
For the first time, Matoian said, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has made a significant purchase of the nut, 6 million pounds for its nutrition programs. Exports remain strong at about 63 percent of the crop.
Food safety priority
Two years ago, Setton found itself at the center of a food safety scare that shook the pistachio industry, mounting a voluntary recall of nuts it processed at the Terra Bella plant after concern over salmonella contamination. No illnesses were linked to the reported contamination.
Matoian gives Setton high marks for its response to the food safety concerns. “They shut down the plant for several weeks, did extensive cleaning and testing and held town hall meetings with the industry and growers,” he said.
Matoian said Setton and others in the industry took steps to avoid contamination. “They (Sutton) are on the leading edge of technology to be sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
Radio frequency identification is used throughout the processing steps at Setton, Cohen said, for traceability “from orchards to bags to trucks to containers to machines.”
A system of pressurized air — “positive air flow” — is used to keep any contaminants from raw nuts from traveling to those ready to eat.
“Food safety is an instrumental part of what we do,” Cohen said, “and we’re always looking at new technology and methodology.”
The pistachio operation is part of Setton International Foods Inc., based in Commack, N.Y. Setton International is a full service provider of nuts, dried fruit, edible seed, chocolate and candy to the snack food industry.
The company had its beginnings in Brooklyn, N.Y., with brothers Joshua and Morris Setton.
In 1986, Setton Pistachio was formed in California. In 1995 expansion for Setton Pistachio came with the acquisition in Terra Bella of what had been Dole Pistachios.