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March 23, 2020

Microgrids: Shifting to More Reliable Energy

In the fresh produce industry, reliable energy is essential to running an operation and maintaining the integrity of the product. With storm-related power outages and public safety power shut-offs plaguing California and contributing to significant damages among agricultural businesses, the industry is beginning to explore alternative energy options.

In the traditional utility structure, the power grid is centered around population hubs. As you get further away from these city centers, the infrastructure begins to taper, which is significant for California growers who often operate on the edge of these centralized power grids. Consequently, the quality and stability of energy can oftentimes be unpredictable in rural communities.

When adding unforeseen power outages to the equation—in particular, during harvest season—it can be difficult for growers to plan their production and preserve the fruits of their labor accordingly, and the economic impact can be devastating. Unlike other businesses that can simply make up their work at a later date, the timing of cultivation practices and harvest is everything for fresh produce operation; there are crops to irrigate and harvest and coolers to keep cold.

In addition to the disruption-related costs of power outages, the cost of energy itself is on the rise. Over the past several years, energy costs have risen by as much as 20 percent in some agricultural areas, forcing growers to explore innovative ways to achieve power independence.

One concept that has emerged to help farmers gain this energy independence is microgrids—intelligent, renewable and localized electricity sources that have the capability to disconnect from traditional grids to operate autonomously. Microgrids incorporate renewable energy sources and serve as a reliable way to achieve operational resilience and economic certainty.

“Because they can operate while the main grid is down, microgrids help mitigate disturbances. Microgrids utilize intermittent renewable generation—like wind and solar—as well as dispatchable resources like cogeneration and batteries,” stated Concentric Power’s CEO and founder Brian Curtis.

Curtis further explained that microgrids are controlled by integrated software and hardware technologies that manage the power sources and distribute the energy to the power users according to their needs. Microgrids also use artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify ways to achieve better results and manage assets.

“Working together, the microgrid’s resources are greater than the sum of its parts, driving system performance to a level of efficiency and economic benefit none could do alone,” Curtis pointed out. Ultimately, microgrids allow farmers and ranchers to have more control over their power systems and operations when their existing utility service is inefficient.

Coming off 20 years of energy engineering experience, Curtis founded Concentric Power, an intelligent microgrid developer focused on providing energy solutions to California’s agriculture industry. His mission is to assist customers in building clean power infrastructure that allow them to keep the lights on independent of the main power grid, while reducing carbon emissions and optimizing energy efficiency.

Concentric Power teamed up with the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology (WGCIT) in January 2020 to co-host the Salinas Valley Energy Forum, which brought together an expert panel of energy developers, government agencies and solution providers to discuss the unreliable energy challenges facing agricultural operations along the 101 corridor. With questionable power quality and potentially a decade of PG&E power shut offs ahead, the forum offered insight on how Salinas Valley agriculture can avoid major disruptions to their businesses, all while saving money and meeting sustainability goals.

First up on the docket was Curtis, who kicked off the panel discussion with a synopsis of macro-trends in energy usage by Salinas Valley growers, coolers and processors. Gonzales City Manager Rene Mendez followed up with the microgrid solutions being developed by his city.

Next, Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, Vice President Gregg Morasca of Strategic Customers at Schneider Electric, and Rick Sturtevant, California State Energy Coordinator with the U.S. Department of Agriculture rounded out the panel discussion, which centered on the complexities of getting off the grid.

The Salinas Valley Energy Forum was an important early step in driving forward the conversation around developing reliable, sustainable energy solutions in agriculture. Beyond the Salinas Valley, Western Growers members in every region will be forced to grapple with the increasing need to become more energy independent, which is part and parcel of the overarching trend toward renewable energy sources. Microgrids will invariably be part of the answer.