Drought and High-Energy Demands in Central Valley Drive Faster Turnaround in Power Projects

Already this year, SCE has had more than 200 requests from farmers for well pump service connections.

California’s Central Valley, the source of a quarter of the nation’s food, not only needs more water, but more horsepower — specifically, to drive pumps that extract groundwater from wells. With surface water scarce, well-pump users need up to three times the horsepower — and more electricity — to reach decreasing water levels in aquifers.

In short, the valley needs more power and the clock is ticking.

“Customers are adding pumps at an unprecedented rate,” said Michael Peterson, a senior engineer at Southern California Edison, citing more than 200 requests for well pump service connections in the Central Valley already this year.

SCE is working quickly to meet the increasing demand for electricity by bolstering equipment and circuits at its key Central Valley substations, completing the upgrades in one-third of the standard turnaround time or less. This is just one way the utility is helping Central Valley customers impacted by the ongoing drought.

“It’s critical that these projects get completed soon,” Peterson said. The valley’s system peak — the time period when the electric grid serves its highest annual demand — usually occurs in June or July. That’s when a “perfect storm” of load from agricultural irrigation and increased air-conditioning usage from residential and commercial customers comes to a head. 

The flurry of expedited substation and circuit upgrades includes:

  • Adding contingent transformer banks at SCE’s Browning and Wheatland substations.
  • Upgrading the transformer bank conductor at Mariposa substation.
  • Sub-transmission line replacement on two sub-transmission lines.
  • Upgraded or rebuilt transformer banks at the Browning, Mariposa, Quinn, Terra Bella and Vestal B substations.
  • Two new circuits are being constructed out of the Earlimart and Delano substations.

Drought-related customer work orders are also being flagged for priority in scheduling.

For agricultural business customers, the interdependency of water and energy is a fact of everyday life.  The practices used by Pitigliano Farms — a fourth-generation family business which grows pistachios, almonds and wine grapes in the Central Valley community of Tipton — illustrate the importance of managing the water-energy relationship.

“Our energy expenses are probably our second-largest budgetary expense on the farm [after labor],” said Josh Pitigliano, who operates the farm with his brothers, Michael and Dominic, and his father, Charlie.

Working with SCE, the Pitiglianos determined that irrigation makes up 90 percent of their energy costs, and switched to an optional Time-Of-Use rate offered by SCE which matched up better with their usage.

With further collaboration, the family made their farm more efficient on the Time-Of-Use rate plan with targeted operational shifts.

“We’re able to pump water from deep wells into our reservoir during off-peak hours,” Josh said. They use booster pumps — which require far less energy — during on-peak hours to send the water into sprinkler and drip systems for irrigation.

As a result of their efforts, Pitigliano Farms saved about $80,000 in energy costs in 2013.

“The last two years have been the busiest by far,” said SCE’s Randy Whitten, a Distribution Service planner based in Tulare. “Everyone is working overtime to keep up with the service requests.”

Whitten noted that SCE accommodated 80 megawatts of added demand in the Central Valley last year and expects this year to be similar.  

Peterson likens the situation to a pincer effect.

“Our energy source — the water in lakes, reservoirs and canals — is diminishing while our energy demand increases,” he said. Nevertheless, the company is “committed to responding to (drought-related) customer requests in an expedited fashion.”