Organic Broadcaster

Small-scale farms find innovative ways to invest in solar power

By Kelli Boylen

Many people love the idea of solar energy powering their farms and homes, but the initial investment can be overwhelming. Here’s how two small-scale Wisconsin farmers found ways to make the investment in solar work for their farms.

Spring Hill Community Farm
Michael Racette and Patty Wright installed a solar system in June 2015 at their 80-acre farm near Prairie Farm, Wis. Spring Hill Community Farm provides a vegetable CSA for about 145 members.

Spring Hill’s CSA operates in accordance to written “guiding principles” which include creating a farm that is “economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable.” The farm has an advisory board, known as the “core group,” which is made up of dedicated members.

“The core group was instrumental in the decision to install Spring Hill’s solar array, and in creating a funding plan for installation,” Racette said.

The initial interest in solar came about after Wright and Racette attended a Wisconsin Farmers Union presentation about solar energy on farms. There, they learned about potential grants, and became intrigued. They began to do research and considered possible ways to make a solar array affordable for their farm. They applied for and received a USDA REAP grant (Rural Energy for America), and received a 30 percent tax credit. They also asked their members for a voluntary one-time contribution toward the $31,600 solar installation. The members showed overwhelming support, with 124 members giving an average of $70 each.

“Spring Hill members are really excited about seeing the system when they come to the farm,” Racette said. “We all feel like we took a big step forward as we work together to create a more sustainable farm. It’s been a good thing for our community-supported farm.”

Within seven months of attending the presentation about solar they had the panels installed on their farm. “We would encourage anyone interested in solar to learn more. Solar prices have really come down dramatically. This is the future of energy production,” Racette said, adding that current grant opportunities are good.

Spring Hill uses about 10,000 kWh (kilowatt hours) annually, with their primary energy loads being refrigeration and water heating. The payback on their system is estimated to be 11 years. Over the 30-year life of their solar system, their C02 offset will be 350.7 tons and their 30-year coal offset will be 139.5 tons.

The solar array at Stoney Acres Farm sits on the roof of the pack shed, which turned out to have good angles for the collectors. Guests enjoy the farm’s weekly pizza night.
Photo by Carly Stephenson

Stoney Acres Farm
Tony Schultz of Stoney Acres Farm, Athens, Wis., believes solar power is currently not only possible, it’s logical. “We are committed to a goal of being energy neutral for both ideological and practical reasons. This is the best investment we could make,” he said.

Stoney Acres is a 240-acre certified organic farm in its 11th year. The farm hosts hundreds of visitors each week in season for “pizza nights.” A grid-tied solar system was installed on the farm in April of 2013.

Schultz said the solar system on their farm has about a 9 percent return on investment, much higher than CDs, savings or even the stock market. He said they decided to install solar over other large scale investments, such as better irrigation or a new tractor, “because the payback was better.”

Solar on their vegetable and grazing farm has allowed the improvement in the quality and quantity of crops stored in the pack shed; it also allowed the improvement of greenhouse facilities. The farm uses about 13,000 kWh per year. Schultz believes the system has already paid for itself.

The installed costs of the Stoney Acres solar system was $31,500, but a USDA REAP grant, Focus on Energy grant, and federal tax credit (currently available through 2019) helped to reduce the out-of-pocket costs to about a fifth of the original cost.

“If we are constantly telling people about the harms of industrial food production, we need to put our money where our mouth is,” Schultz added.

The only issue Schultz has with the solar panels on Stoney Acres Farm is that they could use more of them. Their panels currently generate about 80 percent of the electricity needed for their operation, which includes a walk-in cooler, dining hall, commercial kitchen and a wood-fired pizza oven. Schultz said they plan on installing more in the future.

“This is one way we can shape the world we want to live in,” he said.

Solar Payback
“How fast can the system pay for itself?” is often the first question asked by people exploring solar power. But, the answer is not always a simple one.

According to Rob Peck of Northwind Renewable Energy, a system’s payback timeline can vary greatly depending on how many kilowatts of power used per month, and how much the local utility company charges per kilowatt hour. “It’s still a variable investment here in the Upper Midwest,” Peck said.
For many folks, the benefits of a solar system are much greater simple economics.

“Don’t lose sight of the environmental and energy security it offers as well as financial,” Peck added.

“It takes 1.23 pounds of coal to generate one kWh of electricity,” he explained. “If you have a large dairy that uses about $1,000 a month in electricity, that means you are responsible for 6,970 pounds of coal per month. An average residence uses about 8,600 pounds of coal per year.” Peck added that each kilowatt hour generated by burning coal produces 2.2 pounds of CO2, which can quickly add up to a large carbon footprint for one farming operation, even a small one.

In 1996, the average cost of electricity in Wisconsin was $.08 per kWh; it is currently $.14. By 2037, the cost will likely be above $.30 per kWh. Using these figures, Peck said a large operation currently averaging $1,000 a month in electricity will use more than $619,000 worth of energy over 30 years. He dubbed this the “cost of doing nothing,” meaning you are already making a large investment in electricity by purchasing it from a utility company.

Peck is an advocate of “grid-tied” solar systems. These systems require no batteries—electricity flows in and out. Peck said that the power grid serves as a battery. Your home, farm or business generates its own power, and draws from the existing electrical grid when there is not enough sunlight. Unused power is sold back to the power company. Money paid from the utility company to the solar panel owner can vary greatly, from 30 percent of what the utility company charges to full retail price for over-generated electricity.

Recovery costs vary from 7 to 10 years average for commercial properties, and 12 to 14 years for residential installations, Peck estimated. Many solar systems are designed for at least a 30-year lifespan, he said, and most commercial systems pay for themselves within eight years.

No matter what company you work with, make sure there are good warranties on long-term output, the inverter and panels, Peck advised. He also recommended making sure the solar company you choose is certified with the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners. Many solar companies have staff who will assist with grant writing, but ask up front if that’s a service your company can provide, he added.

Solar systems that are tied to the grid cannot be used during power outages unless they have their own storage device because any energy feeding back onto the grid system could be dangerous for linemen working to restore power. However, a generator can be used with a grid-tied solar system.

Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer who lives on a homestead in Iowa. She is a frequent contributer to the Organic Broadcaster and other farming publications.

From the March | April 2017 Issue

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