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California's farmers ditch dirty diesel pumps

  California's two biggest utility companies want to help farmers ditch their polluting diesel pumps to comply with air-quality crackdowns. In the process, the companies stand to gain thousands of new customers.

In November, Pacific Gas and Electric Company and Southern California Edison submitted a proposal to the California Public Utilities Commission — which authorizes all utility rate changes — to reduce electricity rates by 20 percent for farmers who switch from diesel-powered irrigation pumps to electric.

Currently, about 5,700 diesel pumps bring water to crops in California's Central Valley. The exhaust contributes to one of the highest rates of ozone pollution and asthma in the country, according to David Pepper, a doctor with the Medical Alliance for Healthy Air.

An exemption for California's farmers in the 1970 federal Clean Air Act allowed them to operate dirty machines without the air pollution permits required of other industries. But a state law closed the loophole in 2003, and farmers now face costly equipment upgrades to meet new standards (HCN, 10/13/03: Clearing the Air).

The utilities' incentive program gives farmers a 20 percent discount on electricity the first year, then decreases the discount by 1.5 percent each year for 10 years. Under the program, a 100 horsepower pump running for 100 hours would use roughly $600 of electricity — about the same cost as burning diesel.

"It adds customer base," says Jon Tremayne, a spokesperson for Pacific Gas and Electric. "And it cleans the air."

The state utilities commission could approve the incentive program as early as this spring.