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Wednesday, Sep 27, 2023


Officials from Houweling’s Tomatoes and GE Energy recently unveiled an innovative heat and power system at the Camarillo grower’s 125-acre greenhouse that aims to operate the facility at near 100 percent efficiency. The plant, the first of its kind in the U.S., was built to power the agriculture facility and provide Southern California Edison with enough electricity to power thousands of homes. But project stakeholders say laborious state regulations, a staggeringly slow governmental review process and an infrastructure ill-equipped to handle recent energy advances has delayed the $17 million project from fully powering up by more than a year. “Power is complex,” said Casey Houweling, the agriculture company’s owner. But he adds that the current regulatory process leaves a lot to be desired. “It’s hard to budget when you have no idea how long the process will take.” Houweling’s Tomatoes has maintained a long-standing commitment to green development and the cogeneration project is its most visible step to date, yet company officials say the investment may not reach its full financial or energy possibilities anytime soon. Project stakeholders — including Houweling’s Tomatoes, GE Energy and Western Energy, which contracts to install and maintain the GE equipment — expected the system to be up and running late last month, when a press conference was held to publically debut the system, Houweling said. David Bell, chief marketing officer, attributed the delay to infrastructure upgrades and permitting setbacks. The project approval process is especially difficult when officials are tasked with permitting unseen technology. “They’ve never seen something like this come across their desk,” Bell said. “They always trust information about things they’ve already seen.” Hindered Progress The Houweling’s greenhouse project, started three years ago, relies on two GE-made Jenbacher natural gas engines. But unlike other greenhouse systems, this system enables the plants to use energy from the natural gas engines to the greatest degree of efficiency. Here’s how it works: Water condensed from the engine exhaust will be used to irrigate the tomatoes and cucumbers the company grows in its Conejo Valley greenhouse. The plant will generate 8.7 megawatts of power, enough to power roughly 8,800 homes, and only some of that is needed to power the facility. The excess energy can then be exported to the power grid. Heat produced from the engines will be captured in thermal storage tanks that can heat the water to between 85 and 90 degrees Celsius so that the greenhouse may be heated at night. In addition, nearly 21,400 tons of carbon dioxide waste from the engines will be captured and purified to fertilize the plants. “This is the most efficient greenhouse in the U.S.,” said Scott Nolen, product line management leader for power generation at GE Energy. Houweling said the company’s second- and third-highest costs after labor are heat and CO2. “When you look at that,” he said, “that’s someone else’s waste.” When completed, this project will eliminate those costs, allowing the company to generate both items onsite, he said. While the company is the first produce grower in the U.S. to use energy to grow plants and power homes, the technology has been used elsewhere, primarily Europe, where cogeneration technology has been fostered. “In Europe, a long time ago, they decided to support these things,” Nolen said. “They mandated access to the grid and, in fact, gave preferential rates to those working with renewable energy.” To date, Houweling’s has turned on the engines for a total of 27 hours, working toward a 50-hour minimum required before the next permitting step, Bell said. The company is not exporting any power or converting carbon dioxide. In California, all energy providers are permitted and regulated by the California Independent Service Operator (CAISO), a semi-public entity created in 1996 by AB 1890. This is in addition to California Energy Commission requirements and negotiations with local utilities. “That’s been the biggest bottleneck of the whole project,” Nolen said. Demand for renewable energy has exploded in recent years, but many who have attempted to get permits for such projects say the approval process has not yet caught up with the technology and demand, creating lengthy and costly delays. “There is really no one sheet, no one person, who knows what all the steps are,” Houweling said. Laborious Process The company is still waiting on final approval from CAISO, Bell said. At that point, it can negotiate a Power Purchase Agreement, which will allow it to be compensated by Southern California Edison for two megawatts, much less than it can contribute. When a planned third engine is added to the facility next year — a project that’s already in the works and funded — the plant will be able to contribute even more than it can now. “You’re at almost 100 percent efficiency, and here you can’t give to your full potential,” said Nolen. “It’s kind of a disappointment, frankly.” Others say the complicated physical infrastructure of California’s power grid also make it difficult. Steve Greenlee, a spokesman for CAISO, said that the agency must study interconnection procedures and the transmission planning process, which takes about 15 months from the time an applicant files for study with the group. There are only two windows for potential power generators to apply for CAISO studies. For transmission project proposals, the window is open from Aug. 15 to Oct. 15. For power plant interconnection proposals, applications are taken in March of each year. This plan allows for more organized studies, Greenlee said. By doing geographically-based studies, CAISO is better able to evaluate power needs and connections in an area. Even with the potential pitfalls of delays and costly upgrades, the march toward new technology isn’t going to stop anytime soon, according to Nolen. At the recent press conference, officials from British Columbia, where Houweling’s originated and maintains a location, were present to inspect the technology. “What we’re finding is that growers in cold locations are interested,” Nolen said. “People want fresh vegetables and it’s much cheaper to build a greenhouse like this than to grow it in Mexico and have it shipped, long term.” CAISO, too, is looking for ways to trim the process on its end. “We here at ISO have recognized that in the last five years and have tried to streamline some of the complex process,” said Greenlee. “We have gained permission from federal regulatory agencies to implement a streamlined process.” These include putting milestones in the 15-month process at which point applicants can withdraw from the process. While the wait has been lengthy, the plant should be up and running by the beginning of the year, and for Houweling’s, the plant is a testament to its commitment to reducing carbon emissions and operating the greenest company possible. “We’re very happy,” Bell said. “It’s an opportunity not only for us, but also to show what can be done to produce cleaner energy.”

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