ONE OF the star products at this past year's Tulare, CA, farm show was a solar-powered irrigation system. The high level of farmer interest is a telling sign of the times.
In the recent past, row-crop farmers would have paid little attention to a solar-powered pump. Energy expenses were manageable, and the best a sunlight-driven motor could do was drive a motor of only 5 or 10 hp. WorldWater & Power Corporation's AquaMax system, however, can use the sun to power pumps and motors of up to 600 hp — a radical shattering of the old solar “ceiling.”
With the price of energy skyrocketing, the company's claim of having the “right idea at the right time” would seem to be accurate. Diesel fuel, a primary source of energy for irrigation pumps in many areas, was just $0.79/gal. in the year 2000. Today diesel costs more than $2.20/gal.
Pivot systems that run off the electrical grid have fared somewhat better, with the price of electricity staying relatively stable or only mildly increasing in recent years. But electricity has always been a major expense for pivot irrigators, and as demand for power increases, it seems inevitable that the price will keep climbing to the point where solar-powered systems start to become competitive, even without the state and federal rebate and incentives currently in place.
Solar-powered irrigation is not just about saving energy expense, though. It can be a crop saver as well. Widespread brownouts and electrical grid crashes typically occur during the hottest parts of the summer when city-based air conditioning is drawing maximum power off the same electrical grid that farmers use. So the power is most likely to go down right when crops need irrigation the most.
WorldWater & Power has designed its grid-tied solar system so that if the grid goes down, the solar portion of the system will keep working. The company's patented technology includes an electronic “brain” that senses a loss of power from the grid and safely and automatically disconnects from the grid to operate off solar alone. Thus, the irrigation system can operate on or off grid, or as a blend.