Adding solar energy to your farm

Solar energy can be a fantastic financial investment. The key is to seek the right information so you can get the most bang for your buck.

Solar energy is a “green” idea that thousands of farms across America have already put into place. Not only is it an environmentally-friendly way to sustain a farm – it can also lower costs in the long run. The sun is a tremendous (and free) source of energy, but capturing that energy and putting it to use in powering our farms, homes and businesses takes technology, equipment and financial resources. Let’s chat briefly about how solar works on the farm and how it may help increase profitability and sustainability, and fit nicely into your overall goals.

Solar 101

Photons (light particles) from the sun strike the solar panels, knocking electrons free from atoms. When electrons move, a current is created, and when this happens thousands of times per second within a solar panel, it creates energy to power your farm, home or business. The same energy that grows our corn, beans, and vegetables can power your farm. Pretty incredible!

Solar panels generate DC (direct current) which needs to be converted to AC (alternating current) to match what your utility is delivering to your farm. This is done with an inverter. The inverter is “the brain” of the system, and matches the frequency, Hertz, and wattage of the utility power being delivered to you; during the day, if your solar array produces more energy than is needed at your farm, the excess energy begins to flow back to your utility.

The flow of energy is measured in kWh (kilowatt hours). When your solar energy system is installed, your local utility will provide a bi-directional meter that is now capable of measuring the flow of power in either direction. During the day, you may be exporting excess power; overnight, the utility is delivering power back to you. It’s essentially a one to one trade of kWhs.

It is important to note that this process is known as net metering, and that the rules for net metering can vary by state and or even by utility. Make sure you fully understand those rules before making a commitment to going solar. Not understanding them could prove to be costly down the road. Your solar energy contractor should be able to fully explain this to you, specific to your utility.

Where can I install solar panels?

Typically, there are two options. The most common installation method is a roof mount. Many farms have large machine sheds or animal confinement buildings that keep the rain and snow off equipment and livestock, but roofs can further be utilized to generate clean renewable energy without building another structure or taking up good tillable ground.

The second installation method is a ground mount. This is a great solution in the event that a roof is not in the best location for sunshine and/or condition. Some farms have a corner of land that may not be ideal for farming and/or a pasture area for animals that could be utilized.

Typical ground mount arrays can provide some shade areas for animals. This is not a good idea for goats, cattle or horses, however, since these animals like to rub, chew, and otherwise investigate everything around them. There are some solutions for elevating the panels with a higher structure, but this adds extra expense and may make the project cost prohibitive.

Ground mount arrays can provide an ideal vegetation or wildflower area for bees and butterflies. to help pollinate crops and reduce the mowing and maintenance around them.

How can solar save my farm money?

Energy as we know it today costs money, and for many years we have been trained to just pay our monthly electric bill without questioning it. Those costs are driven by market, fuel, and labor costs as well as government mandates. Maintaining our electric grid is expensive, and as improvements are made to further secure our nation’s electricity supply and delivery system, what we pay for that energy will inevitably go up. Have you thought about what your electricity might cost in ten years?

As your solar system generates electricity every day, it replaces some or most of the kWhs you would normally be buying from the utility. If your typical farm usage is 10,000 kWhs a month, your solar system may produce enough to reduce that to 500 kWhs, so now you are only purchasing 500 kWhs from the utility with the rest coming from the sun and your solar array. Most farms can recoup their solar energy investment in less than ten years with a significant portion of the investment returning in the first year or two with current incentives (see sidebar at right).

How do I know if solar is right for my farm?

If your farm uses electricity; if you are profitable and paying taxes; if you are looking to diversify your investment portfolio and turn a cost of doing business into a return; and you like the idea of powering your farm with free fuel… solar energy is likely a great investment for you.

Finding the right partner for this journey is important. Do your homework and investigate a few solar installation companies before signing a contract. This is a long-term partnership, and you want a reliable company that can stand behind their work.