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Uesugi Farms installs solar farm at Gilroy facility

A ribbon-cutting ceremony held Friday, April 26, at the Gilroy, CA, headquarters of Uesugi Farms marked the official launch of a new 791-kilowatt solar-generation installation that will provide electrical power for essentially 100 percent of the facility’s needs over the course of a year, according to Pete Aiello, general manager and a partner in the company.

Construction on the solar installation — the fifth-largest in Santa ClaraIMG 0035Pete Aiello, general manager of Uesugi Farms, and Dan Arlan of Vista Solar accept the California Legislature Assembly Certificate of Recognition on behalf of Uesugi Farms and Vista Solar. (Photo by Gracie Pack) County and either the largest or second-largest for an agricultural operation — began last fall and the new generation plant went online in February, he said. But the planning process actually began several years ago.

Uesugi is a grower, packer and shipper with operations in Mexico and throughout California. “We are widely known for our peppers — our Bells and our chilis,” Mr. Aiello said. “We also grow sweet corn, Napa cabbage, strawberries and pumpkins.”

The company’s headquarters sits on a site of roughly 70 acres that is primarily farmland. “We have cold storage, we have packinglines, we have our administrative office here, we  have auxiliary coolers, pressure coolers, and we are going to have an icing operation for our corn,” Mr. Aiello said.

There is also a hydrocooler for cherries, he said. “We are partners in a cherry orchard,” but Uesugi does not pack or market the cherries. “The packing company is Delta Packing.” However, Delta consolidates the cherries “all at our place. We cool it and ship it out to their facility in Lodi.”

The new solar-generation facility “was designed to offset more or less 100 percent of our usage on an annual basis,” Mr. Aiello said. It is a ground installation covering several acres and is located on a 12-acre portion of the property “that has never been fit for farming and we were never going to do anything with anyway.”

The company has tried growing various crops on that land, but it is sub-prime soil. It also has a very high water table, and the crops that Uesugi have tried to grow never performed. The land has been fallow for at least the last 10 years, so it was appropriate to turn it into a solar farm rather than put the solar installation on rooftops, Mr. Aiello said.

Mr. Aiello said that he has been “working on this notion of solar energy for about five years” and has done a lot of research on it. When he started crunching numbers, in the light of “the huge bills that we pay to our electric utility every year, the numbers spoke for themselves,” he said. With federal and state incentives, “the paybacks were tremendous. It didn’t even require a second thought.” It made sense “to me and my dad, who is my partner.”

Convincing the bank took a little more time, but “when the bank finally got warm to it, then it was just a question of awarding the business to a contractor and getting construction started.”

Uesugi awarded the contract to Vista Solar in early 2012 and started through the permit process. Actual construction finally got under way in early November, and “we received permission from PG&E to operate in late February.”

If the company had paid cash for the installation, “it would have been a four- or five-year payback,”  Mr. Aiello said. “What we did is sign an operating lease. We will pay that off in 10 years. It is just purely cream after that.”

Without the incentives, the payback would have taken much longer, he said. “Without those incentives, I don’t know if we would have been able to pull the trigger.”