Walnuts: Packing an Energetic Punch
If most of us were presented with hundreds of tons of walnut shells, we would consider it a problem. By contrast, when Russ Lester, founder of Dixon Ridge Farms, found himself facing mounds of these seemingly useless by-products of the walnut production process on his walnut farm in Winters, CA, he saw a potential solution. He began to investigate the possibility of transforming the walnut shells into a source of renewable energy.
This investigation led Dixon Ridge to become the first on-farm user of the BioMax 50, a 50-kilowatt biogas-powered generator that converts walnut shells into energy. The generator, which was developed by (CA-based) Community Power Corporation, runs around the clock, creating electricity for the freezer in which walnuts are stored.
“This has been a remarkable project for our company,” says Lester’s daughter, Jenny Lester Moffitt, who also serves as Dixon Ridge’s director of Sales and Marketing. “Even though it is still in its development phase, the BioMax 50 is helping us to save the equivalent of $3,000 per month on electricity.”
While such savings have helped cut down on some of Dixon Ridge’s, Moffitt says there is still a considerable ways to go before the company will see the full benefit of its investment in the biopowered generator. “At this point, we’re still in the research and development phase, so we’re still having to make investments.”
Additionally, Dixon Ridge has faced challenges in working with the local utility company. “They [the utility company] have had difficulty classifying our generator within their existing system, and they have resisted letting us connect it to the grid,” Moffitt notes. At the same time, California’s clean air laws have posed a barrier to Dixon Ridge’s efforts to expand its on-farm renewable energy efforts. At present, those laws identify and permit the use of two types of renewable energy, which do not include the use of walnuts. As a result, the laws also prevent the Dixon Ridge generator from being connected to the grid.
Nonetheless, Moffitt says, the generator has been well worth the time and money Dixon Ridge has put into it. Having nearly broken even this year, she is optimistic that the savings will add up in the years to come. “We are confident that this project is going to result in huge cost savings in the long run.” Plus, she says, it will help move the company toward its goal of becoming 100 percent self-sufficient by 2012.
In the meantime, Moffitt imagines that her father will continue to investigate new ways to make Dixon Ridge a more environmentally friendly operation.
“What can I say?” Moffitt remarks, “My father is an incredible farmer, but he’s also an engineer at heart. He loves to fix and tweak things—particularly when it means he can help to cut down on waste and conduct business in a more sustainable manner.”
Photo of Dixon Ridge accepting the California Governor's Environmental and Economic Leadership Award.
Courtesy of Dixon Ridge Farms.