(Bloomberg) — California’s repeated brushes with blackouts proved too much for Taylor Farms.
The produce supplier, based in the farm country John Steinbeck made famous, can’t afford to lose refrigeration at its facilities where lettuce and vegetables are trimmed, mixed into salads and packaged for sale. So working with Bloom Energy Corp., Taylor Farms is installing a microgrid at its 450,000 square-foot facility near San Juan Bautista — its largest — powered by fuel cells, solar panels and batteries in an effort to end the plant’s reliance on California’s strained power grid.
“For fresh produce, where you’re relying on refrigeration, if that goes down, it can have a huge impact,” said Wyatt Maysey, director of sustainability for Taylor Farms, in an interview. If the model works, he said, the company could deploy it at more of its facilities as concerns rise about the stability of electricity grids. It has plants across the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Those concerns have become a key selling point for Bloom, based in San Jose. The company’s fuel cells generate electricity through an electrochemical reaction rather than combustion, and at first Bloom emphasized their benefits to the environment and climate. But as extreme weather has triggered blackouts in California, Texas and Puerto Rico, Bloom has increasingly used reliability as a sales pitch.
“Certainly, in light of unfortunate extreme weather and stressed grids, it really does end up meeting Bloom’s value proposition,” said Sharelynn Moore, the company’s chief business development and marketing officer, in an interview.
Bloom designed the microgrid, working with Ameresco Inc. and Concept Clean Energy. The system will include enough fuel cells to generate 6 megawatts of electricity, roughly enough to supply 4,500 homes. Solar panels will supply up to 2 additional megawatts of electricity, backed up by 2 megawatts of batteries.
The fuel cells will run on natural gas but can be converted to run on hydrogen in the future, if it becomes widely available. About 1.3 megawatts of solar panels already have been installed, Maysey said, and the entire project could be online next year. The companies did not disclose financial details, but Maysey said the project should pay for itself in five to seven years.
Once running, the microgrid will supply all the electricity needed at the facility, which operates both day and night shifts. The plant will remain tied to the grid for now, at least until Taylor Farms is convinced the plant can operate on its own.
“Obviously, it’s very hard to cut the cord and come back,” Maysey said.