The abundance of sunlight in California — paired with technological advances in converting that sunlight to energy — has fostered solar projects throughout the state.

Grower-shippers whose cooling and packing operations require massive amounts of electricity have been among the pioneers in making the switch.

California is home to more than 60% of the nation’s solar energy projects, said Nader Yarpezeshkan, director of business development for Cenergy Power, a division of BAP Power Corp., Carlsbad, Calif.

Other states in which grower-shippers have strongly embraced solar power include New Jersey, Florida and Georgia, he said.

For Cenergy, serving agricultural customers gets the highest priority.

“We’re doing so well with growers that we’ve established the new Cenergy headquarters in Merced (Calif.),” Yarpezeshkan said.

The recession actually helped increase business in 2010 for Cenergy.

“People had to eat, and the weak dollar helped to increase exports,” Yarpezeshkan said. “As a result, agriculture was well positioned to take advantage of energy projects.”

There is a caution flag waving in the California breeze, however.

First, the state’s incentive funds are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. The sooner a grower-shipper installs a solar system, the better chance he has of receiving a state rebate. The second issue is the state’s multibillion dollar deficit could end California incentives when the fiscal 2012 budget is put in place this fall, Yarpezeshkan said.

Federal solar incentive programs remain in force, however.

“The federal tax grant was extended for another year," Yarpezeshkan said. “It amounts to about 30% of the gross initial cost, and the customer gets that money in a check from the government.”

Other federal government incentives for installing solar energy systems include a 30% tax credit and 100% accelerated depreciation in 2011, he said.

Three San Joaquin Valley grower-shippers are the newest members of the Cenergy-installed solar family. A dedication was scheduled for Jan 26 for the new system at Wasco, Calif.-based Primex Farms LLC.

Del Mar Farms, Westley, Calif., turned the switch on its solar project in November, a year after The Nickel Family LLC installed a solar system at its Kern County headquarters for Rio Bravo Ranch.

The annual output of the recently-finished solar array at J. Marchini Farms, Le Grand, Calif., is estimated at more than 830,000 kilowatt hours, Yarpezeshkan said.

Cenergy does not have a monopoly in California.

Among the grower-shippers who had solar energy systems installed recently by other firms are Castle Rock Vineyards, Delano, Calif., and Wonderful Pistachios, Lost Hills, Calif. Giumarra Vineyards Corp., Bakersfield, Calif., has announced plans to install a photovoltaic solar and co-generation facility.

In addition to reducing energy costs, the rebates and tax incentives help most fresh produce customers recapture their investments within five years, Yarpezeshkan said.

Several banks have financing and lease programs for solar projects, he said, but that most grower-shippers lean toward buying the systems.

“Agriculture in general has a strong ownership culture, so we’ve seen more purchases,” Yarpezeshkan said.

Despite California’s fiscal woes, Cenergy anticipates a busy 2011, Yarpezeshkan said.