Microgrid technology promising greater energy flexibility and independence arrived in Kern Wednesday with the start of construction on an integrated power generation and storage system at an 1,100-employee ag facility in Arvin.
The 5-megawatt solar, natural gas and battery installation Concentric Power Inc. is building at Tasteful Selections’ specialty potato plant will use advanced computer systems to increase efficiency and allow the operation to continue during external disruptions to its power.
Touted as the first such system in the county, the $12 million project kicked off engineering almost a year and a half ago. Solar panels went up between November and January, and the installation is expected to become fully operational by fall, cutting the plant's power bill by an estimated 40 percent.
Microgrids have become more popular in recent years as wider adoption of photovoltaic solar panels and batteries has increased demand for systems that can effectively coordinate them.
The idea is to improve energy resilience while also integrating demand for energy with on-site production, shifting resources when necessary to meet real-time needs for electricity.
Senior executives at Tasteful Selections said the project will keep the lights on and refrigerators running when power goes out around the plant, which they said has happened in the past for three or more hours at a time.
Losing electricity for even four hours can cause product degradation, they said, and an outage lasting days could cost millions of dollars in damage to the miniature potatoes it washes, stores and packages for shipment.
"We always knew we needed to add something" to ensure energy resiliency, said the company's chief operating officer, Nathan Bender. His father, CEO Bob Bender, said the company expects to pay off the microgrid's cost within four to five years.
Nathan noted the inclusion of natural gas as "firm power" adds a backup source while also producing heat that can be incorporated into the plant's refrigeration units, thereby offsetting cooling costs.
At a ceremonial gathering Wednesday of dignitaries and employees of both companies, Concentric's founder and CEO, Brian Curtis, said his Salinas-based organization will be responsible for not only designing and building the microgrid but that it will also maintain and service it for the installation's lifetime of 25-plus years.
It is the company's first such project in the Central Valley. Its other installations are in the Salinas and Silicon valleys, Curtis said, adding that the biggest of its projects is a 5.3-megawatt microgrid in the Monterey area.
Concentric's software and controls choose which energy source to use in real time, he explained. Such decisions are based on an understanding of the plant's critical, essential and non-essential functions, he said: Certain compressors and fans may be turned on or off as needed, with respect for their operational tolerances.
Curtis said Concentric hopes to build additional microgrids serving industrial ag processors in the Central Valley. The company expects to open an office in or near Bakersfield, possibly near Meadows Field Airport, within three to six months.
"We've got a lot of good traction here and we're excited to be coming to Kern," Curtis said. The Central Valley "is just a huge market for what we're doing."
The company works on large scales and doesn't expect to serve residential needs, he said, adding, "This isn't the kind of thing you'd put on your house."
Tasteful Selections at 13003 Di Giorgio Road has expanded physically three times since starting in 2010. The Benders said the company now supplies half the U.S. market for small, specialty potatoes and is now the biggest such company in the country, if not the world.