Water & Energy


It takes great amounts of water and energy to produce the crops that California exports around the country and the world. Eight (8) million agricultural acres in California consume 80% of the total water pumped in the state (US Energy Information Administration). Agriculture in California also consumes nearly 8% of the state’s energy, and approximately 70% of this is for water pumping (CA Department of Food & Agriculture).

In times of energy or water shortage, this can place a heavy strain on growers, especially in California’s Southern and Western Central Valley. Resources are available to help growers save money and resources by managing water and energy use simultaneously.

For most agricultural energy users, the majority of energy use is for water pumping and irrigation, especially during the summer growing season. Many farmers rely on groundwater, which is one of the most energy-intensive sources of water available, using between 170 and 600 kilowatt hours (kWh) per Acre-Foot (AF) of water on average. For example, in the Tulare Lake region, the estimate is 431 kWh/AF (California Public Utilities Commission) of groundwater.

During dry or drought years, the water supply mix ratio shifts from surface to groundwater, resulting in an increase of on-farm energy use due to increased groundwater pumping. Therefore, solutions aimed at increasing the efficiency of groundwater pumps, and increasing the efficiency of water use overall, can make a huge difference in the amount of energy used overall.

In addition, it is critical to improve the integrated management of surface and groundwater resources to ensure that groundwater is recharged in wet years and is not withdrawn below a sustainable or “safe” yield (this practice is known as “conjunctive management”).

Farmers can be quite impacted by the cost of energy. Thirty-three percent of on-farm water usage coincides with peak energy and peak energy pricing, which means that many agricultural water users are paying high prices when they pump water during those peak periods.

Key predictions about California agriculture and water, made almost two decades ago are being realized today, manifesting as the challenges that now face California’s farmers:

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Energy Efficiency

California’s Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs) implement energy efficiency programs funded by the Public Goods Charge (PGC), overseen by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). The CPUC adopted a Strategic Plan for Agricultural Energy Efficiency Programs, setting ambitious goals for the state and IOU-run programs to reach energy savings potential amongst agricultural energy users.

Pump Efficiency

All of the Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs) run programs to test the efficiency of water pumping systems, and have extensive expertise on pump efficiency. Variable Frequency Drive Pumps (VFDs) are one innovation that can reduce energy use by matching the flow of a pump to load requirements. If programmed correctly, these motors can also help reduce mechanical maintenance costs by ramping up slowly to meet system demand.

Irrigation Efficiency

Incentives are currently available for converting from sprinkler irrigation to drip irrigation, and for converting from some higher pressure systems to lower pressures. Crop yields can be improved by replacing flood and high-pressure systems with a micro-irrigation system of drip and low-pressure nozzles. When water use is optimized, less pumping is required. Other benefits include increased production and yields, increased quality and uniformity of crop production, accelerated crop maturity, increased ability to farm marginal land, and substantial water savings.

Pump and irrigation efficiency are combined for “total system” efficiency.

Pricing Structures

New time-of-use pricing structures have recently been introduced by PG&E to encourage more efficient agricultural energy use.

Conjunctive Use

Conjunctive management of surface and groundwater resources can help to decrease the amount of energy used in groundwater pumping by increasing groundwater levels and discouraging or prohibiting groundwater pumping when groundwater levels have dropped below a certain amount.

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Agricultural Peak Load Reduction Program

The goal of the Agricultural Peak Load Reduction Program is to reduce peak period electric demand throughout California, including that of agricultural water uses such as pumps.

American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy is a nonprofit organization that acts as a catalyst to advance energy efficiency policies, programs, technologies, investments, and behaviors. One of their foci is on agriculture and rural communities.

California Agricultural Water Electrical Energy Requirements

The Irrigation Training and Research Center (ITRC) at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo, conducted an analysis of the energy used to supply water to California’s agriculture and examined potential future trends in the agriculture water community to predict future energy requirements. The ITRC was contracted by the California Energy Commission to assess the science and policy of agricultural water resource management to determine the impact future water issues will have on the statewide electricity system.

California Energy Commission 2005 Integrated Energy Policy Report

The Energy Action Plan, adopted earlier this year by the Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission, sets out a series of concrete actions for the state to undertake to meet these challenges. The state must reinforce its commitment to these efforts and take immediate action to address problems in the energy sector to meet the state’s policy goal of ensuring adequate, affordable, reliable, and environmentally-sound energy services for its citizens.

California Energy Commission 2009 The California Energy Almanac

This Energy Almanac, brought to you by the California Energy Commission, provides both a quick overview and in-depth statistics of California’s Energy Industry.

California Energy Commission 2009a Energy Consumption Data Management System

The California Energy Commission has created this on-line database for informal reporting purposes using numerous electricity and natural gas consumption data sources. Users can generate reports showing the amount of energy consumed by geographical area, sector (residential, commercial, industrial) classifications. The database also provides easy downloading of energy consumption data into Microsoft Excel (XLS) and comma-separated values (CSV) file formats.

CDFA/ UC Agricultural Issues Center: Agriculture and Energy Fact Sheet

The paper provides an overview of the relationship between energy and agriculture in the state of California.

CPUC Agricultural Energy Efficiency Homepage

The IOUs’ statewide Agricultural Energy Efficiency Program provides strategic energy planning, audits, rebates, and incentives to customers in order to accelerate the adoption of energy efficiency measures. The Energy Efficiency Statewide Agricultural Program provides energy analysis services leading to improved energy efficiency of agricultural facilities, including on-site food processing facilities. The homepage lists statewide energy efficiency programs available for the agriculture sector by the state’s four large utilities. Each utility also offers local program elements that complement and enhance these core offerings in their region. A fact sheet overviewing the program can be found here.

CPUC Water/Energy Nexus Homepage

One of the state’s largest end uses of electricity is in the treatment, heating, and conveyance of water in California. This is known to many as the “Water/Energy Nexus.” TheIOUs currently offer many incentive programs in the areas of energy efficiency, demand response, and distributed generation related to the water/energy nexus. The webpage provides links, information, announcements, and opportunities focused on the nexus subject.

Impact of energy cost and water resource availability on agriculture and groundwater quality in California

This paper discusses the simultaneous effects of water scarcity and energy price increases on farm-level decisions such as water-related technology substitution and cropping patterns, and on groundwater quantity and quality, and farm income. Note: a fee may be incurred in order to view the full article.

Irrigation Rebate

This document provides information regarding drip conversion rebate and the equipment required to do so.

PG&E’s Advanced Pump Efficiency Program

“Administered by CSU Fresno’s Center for Irrigation Technology, APEP subsidizes over 2,400 pump tests per year and provides cash incentives for pump retrofit projects. Their mobile simulation trailer allows them to offer pump workshops throughout the state. The Center for Irrigation Technology (CIT) is also currently conducting an advanced irrigation pilot project to study the impact of irrigation uniformity and application efficiency.”

PG&E Program for Agriculture & Irrigation

This fact sheet provides an overview of Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) services to improve energy management for agriculture and irrigation.

SDG&E Irrigation Programs

Optimizing Pump Utilization Systems provides a no-cost pump test and evaluation to all agriculture and non-residential customers with water pumps of 20 horsepower or more.

SoCalGas Agricultural Energy Efficiency Rebates

The Southern California Gas Company has created a rebate program aimed at incentivizing growers to purchase energy-efficient equipment. This program is funded by California utility customers and administered by Southern California Gas Company under the auspices of the California Public Utilities Commission.

Southern CA Edison’s Agricultural Energy Efficiency Program

This program helps water pumping customers adopt energy efficient equipment and practices and take advantage of SCE’s Demand Response Programs.

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Case Studies

Energy Management Success Story: Pump Efficiency Improvements at George Watte & Sons

The George Watte & Sons Farm in Tulare, CA utilizes free pump testing services to check the efficiency of its pumps every other year. Since the farm estimates that the pumped water accounts for 90% of the farm’s energy use, it is important to ensure that this equipment is working properly. This testing has shown its benefit in energy savings. George Watte & Sons also takes other steps to utilize both energy and water resources as effectively as possible. Use of a variable speed vacuum pump in the dairy saves energy by matching the vacuum pump motor’s speed and energy consumption with the vacuum needed. Water savings result from drip irrigation for the trees and field laser leveling to make the flow of water across the crops more uniform and efficient.

Groundwater Management in Pajaro Valley

Balancing groundwater and surface water use can be complex in regions where neither is abundant. To work towards sustainable groundwater management, the Pajaro Valley is in the process of implementing a variety of programs, including a combination of additional supplies developed through water recycling and reuse, new groundwater recharge and storage options, and more aggressive water conservation and efficiency. A critical component of the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency’s conjunctive use program is data collection and analysis. In addition, local stakeholders are involved in a “Community Water Dialogue” and the basin management planning process to improve the knowledge base and find shared solutions.

Nichols Farms: Meeting the Water Challenge and Maximizing Pump Efficiency

Nichols Farms pays close attention to how it can most effectively pump and transport water for crop irrigation. To ensure it operates in the most efficient and cost-effective manner, for decades Nichols Farms has evaluated its pumps using SCE’s free pump testing services. Each growing season, the test findings aid in determining the most cost-effective way to irrigate different areas of the farm, “mixing and matching” use of various pumps as needed to employ the ones that operate at the highest efficiency level. Pump tests also help identify potential pump maintenance problems.

Straus Family Creamery

At Straus Family Creamery separated manure solids are an excellent source of compost for pastureland and silage crops. The compost improves water infiltration and soil moisture holding capacity and helps reduce soil erosion. This video is part of the Water Stewardship video series produced by the Ecological Farming Association. The video describes Straus Family Creamery’s energy production system of methane digestion, which utilizes recycled water, and methane captured from cow manure. Correction to the written case study: Straus Family Creamery is actually 500 acres, not 660 acres as stated. The 160 additional acres is Straus Home Ranch and is own by Michael Staus and his sisters.

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Page Credit

Content for this page was originally developed by Meredith Younghein, California Public Utilities Commission. Various others have since contributed content.