70% Of California’s Pistachio Crop Could Go Solar All At Once

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So, there’s good news for all you pistachio fans out there. The Department of Energy is filing a new concentrating solar demonstration project under S for Success. If it scales up to the next level, a California nut processing plant that handles 70% of all the state’s pistachios could switch to solar power.

That’s a super high impact result for just one solar application, and DOE foresees that the retrofit concept can be applied throughout the food processing industry. Think heat for roasting, drying, steaming, baking, frying, boiling and other steps between the farm and the packaged product, and you’ve got yet another reason for the fossil fuel industry to sweat.

Food And Clean Power

The renewable spotlight shines brightest on the electricity generation sector, but that’s just one feature of the US energy landscape.

Manufacturing is another major energy sector, and in many fields — especially food processing — the usable energy form is not necessarily electricity, it’s simply heat.

Solar-powered dehydration has been a thermal food processing method for millennia, so it’s not a particularly big leap to deploy modern technology to expand the range of thermal solar applications in food prep.

Aside from the potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions related to industrial food processing operations, small-scale solar power can play a pivotal role in rural economic development, partly by releasing women and children from the fuel gathering cycle, and by reducing or eliminating indoor air pollution and safety hazards from conventional cookstoves.

Back in 2012, the National Institutes of Health published a rundown of renewable energy opportunities for food processing, with an eye toward reducing food waste and increasing food availability in emerging economies:

Solar food processing brings in two emerging technologies together to solve the two major problems the world facing in 21st century, namely: how to generate energy enough for an expanding global population? and how to feed the constantly expanding world population?

This has a different connotation with respect to developing countries. Growing population and unequal wealth distribution in these countries has created a section of the society being left behind and chronically poor. Lack of reliable and affordable energy sources in these parts only complicates the matter…

The Concentrating Solar Power Success Story

Where were we? Oh right, the new concentrating solar power demonstration plant.

Concentrating solar power has had its share of doubters, but the US Energy Department is a fan.

Under the Obama Administration the agency invested millions to kickstart the concentrating solar electricity generation industry in the US, under the SunShot program goal of getting costs down to 6 cents per kilowatt hour.

It’s not quite there yet, but costs are dropping fast. According to DOE, costs have already gone down from 36 cents per kilowatt hour down to 12 cents.

The pistachio story demonstrates another potential growth sector for concentrating solar power.

The new demonstration CSP (concentrating solar power) plant was developed by the company Sunvapor and funded through the Energy Department’s SunShot initiative. The idea is to use solar power to generate steam for pasteurizing, blanching, and roasting pistachios at Horizon Nut, a growers’ cooperative that collectively produces about 70% of the pistachios in California.

One criticism of concentrating solar systems is the expense. Rather than focusing narrowly on boosting performance, Sunvapor approached the problem from a cost cutting perspective.

The Sunvapor system, called the Green Parabolic Trough Collector, was inspired by an “architectural paradigm” resulting in reducing costs:

Use of a lower cost, low embodied-energy structural material

A new material-efficient structural typology

Low-cost manufacturing processes

The conversion of solar energy to usable heat (aka process heat) also reduces final costs and promotes efficiency relative to solar powered electricity generation.

The result is a system of parabolic troughs using wood instead of the more familiar (and much more expensive) steel components, cutting the cost of the trough by about half.

The system can function efficiently at up to 500 degrees Celsius, though according to Sunvapor most food processing takes place at temperatures only up to 230 degrees.

As for durability, Sunvapor’s tests and modeling indicate a lifespan of approximately 30 years.

Yet Another Solar Success Story

Although the project has just barely launched into the demonstration phase (Sunvapor and Horizon Nut just signed their agreement two months ago), the Energy Department is already promoting the project under the “Success Stories” collection organized by EERE, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Here’s DOE enthusing over the potentials:

Because the food processing industry is so large, Sunvapor’s solar collector and steam application represents a high-impact opportunity for greening the food processing business. This new application further demonstrates the versatile application range of solar technologies, and lays a framework for retrofitting and replacing outdated heating methods with low-cost, highly efficient concentrating solar power.

That’s jumping the gun somewhat, but the technology is proven and according to Sunvapor, solar process heat is a “sleeping giant” that is already trending in other important markets including Europe, India and Asia.

CleanTechnica will be checking in on Horizon Nut to see how things are going, and on Sunvapor, too.

In the meantime, if you’re thinking it’s odd that an agency of coal loving President Trump is going out of its way to promote renewables, there’s that.

Along with promoting its EERE Success Stories collection, DOE has been pumping out all the good news about renewables ever since Inauguration Day.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry set the Intertubes on fire earlier this week when he hedged on climate change during a brief interview with CNBC, but in practically the same breath he made yet another pitch for investing in renewables.

If you can figure it out, drop us a note in the comment thread.

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Image: Sunvapor via US Department of Energy.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3148 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey