In the Midwest, farmers leading the way on solar power

Installers say farms like this one in central Minnesota make ideal locations for solar arrays. (Photo by CERTs via Creative Commons)

Solar installations have been taking off in many areas of the Midwest, but perhaps nowhere more so than in farm country.

“It’s a huge buzz now throughout the agriculture industry,” said Todd Miller, sales director for CB Solar in Ankeny, Iowa.

In Washington County, Iowa, for example, farmers with access to an unusual and lucrative combination of federal, state and utility incentives were anticipating payback periods of as little as two years, according to Ed Raber, director of the county’s economic development corporation.

Consequently, he said, “There are more solar panels in Washington County than in any other county in Iowa.”

The heat in Washington County, just south of Iowa City, has dissipated a bit, largely because the local utility – Alliant Energy – terminated its subsidy as of Dec. 31. However, solar panels continue to make inroads on farms in Iowa and elsewhere in the Midwest.

‘A ripple effect’

In Ohio, EcoJiva Solar has seen growing interest from farmers since its founding six years ago, according to sales director Jess Ennis. Of the more than 100 systems the company has installed, he said, the vast majority have been on farms.

At the outset, the company envisioned bringing solar energy to manufacturers, he said, but they were too financially squeezed for a big capital investment. Agriculture, on the other hand, was thriving – and quite receptive to the idea of going solar.

Take, for example, the panels that EcoJiva installed on a farm outside of Huron, Ohio.

“Within several months,” Ennis said, “we developed three systems north and south of there. Within a three-mile stretch of road, we now have four systems.

“Generally speaking, when we install a system, it creates a ripple effect.”

Minnesota installer Curt Shellum also has found that, in farm country, solar arrays tend to breed more solar arrays.

“You get systems out there, people see them and drop by,” he said. In the agricultural region of southeast Minnesota, where he does most of his work, Shellum said, demand among farmers “is definitely growing for us. We’ve done maybe a dozen installs. In the last month, we’ve done enough farm proposals to equal the number of kilowatts we installed last year.”

In Illinois, solar developer Michelle Marley agrees that word of mouth is important.

“It’s just now starting to get a foothold,” she said. “The greatest obstacle is getting the word out.”

A long-term investment

Solar panels are a natural fit on a farm, a few installers observed. Shellum said that, for several reasons, they’re his “favorite type of installation.”

For one, farms tend to use a lot of power, with monthly electric bills sometimes running into the thousands of dollars. They need electricity to run fans, to heat and cool barns for dairy cows, to cool milk and produce, to dry grain and move it around.

Many farms also have barns with roofs that lend themselves to holding up solar panels. And if there’s not a suitable roof, there’s usually plenty of space for a freestanding array.

In addition, farmers are accustomed to thinking long-term and investing in their business. Many of them have maintained the farm in their family for generations, and expect it to continue as a family-owned enterprise that will reap the benefits of investment in solar energy for decades to come.

And they tend to be an independent lot who like the prospect of producing their own power.

Like Tim Ridgely, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat along with his son in central Illinois. In 2012, the Ridgelys put up a 17 kilowatt system in a field by their house and cut the electricity bill by about 40 percent, according to Tim Ridgely. Then, in 2013, they added 22 kilowatts, at a cost of 59 cents per watt after accounting for all credits, grants and subsidies they received.

Although he won’t have the full picture until next summer, Ridgely said, “We hope to be close to self-sufficient.”

Phil Rich had five systems totaling 110 kilowatts installed last spring on his farm in Washington County, Iowa. He’d purchased some used wind turbines earlier, and found they were costly and not as productive as he’d anticipated. His solar panels have been quite a different story.

“My last electric bill – and I did a lot of welding – was $600,” he said a couple months ago. “And normally it would be around $1,500 to $2,000.”

Subsidies a key factor

Michelle Wei, the installer who put panels up at Phil Rich’s farm and at numerous others in Washington and Henry counties, said many of her customers tried wind energy, and then opted to try solar.

Regardless of the technology, she said, “farmers are really interested in renewable energy.”

“We try to do things that are environmentally friendly,” said Linda Gent, who had three systems totaling 96 kilowatts installed on her house and two hog units in Wellman, Iowa. But there’s no denying that subsidies played into her decision to go ahead, she said.

Alliant Energy’s benefit covered about 25 percent of the cost, she said. State and federal tax credits lightened the burden on her even further. Many Midwestern farmers also have tapped into the a USDA grant (Rural Energy for American Program) that can cover up to 25 percent of a project’s cost.

“When you put it all together, it makes great financial sense,” said Illinois developer Marley.

Without quite so much financial encouragement, Gent said, “We would have had to give it more thought.”

Solar Energy For The Farm?

Original source: Farm Industry News

High up-front costs have steered many farmers away from investing in their own solar or wind energy plant.  But that scenario is changing with the rise in energy prices and a concurrent drop in material costs for installing a solar or wind plant.

“In the last four or five years, the cost of solar systems has actually been cut in half,” says Mark Olinyk, president of Harvest Energy Solutions, a Midwest energy distributor specializing in the farm market. “The technology is getting better, and the solar panels are much more efficient.”

 

Growing trend

Solar and wind are the two most common forms of renewable energy in the U.S. But Harvest Energy Solutions says sales of solar have dramatically surpassed wind over the last couple of years. The company says the current trend across all states is leaning toward solar because the entire solar installation is getting cheaper.

With wind, Olinyk says the cost of your investment is basically the price of steel, magnets and copper used to construct the turbine, none of which has come down in price.

The company installs 10kW (solar) systems or larger. A typical system costs anywhere from $3 to $3.50 per watt, which means a 10kW array would cost about $35,000. That size of an array can power an average house. The energy, or kilowatt-hours produced, is typically used first, and the additional energy created and not immediately used is fed into the utility grid and stored there to provide a backup supply of energy when needed.

farmindustry

Incentives to act

Many farmers could justify getting an alternative energy system, especially with the number of incentive programs available. For example, the federal government is offering a 30% income tax credit to those buying a solar or wind installation for a home or business. This tax credit will be in effect for installations until Dec. 31, 2016. Additional national incentives and available rebates are listed at energy.gov/savings.

Local utility companies offer their own incentive programs. “Biggest thing we are seeing is that every utility company in the country has different incentives,” Olinyk says. “Part of what we do is to work with the utility companies for you to find out what incentive programs are available and which ones work best for you.”

“We have literally installed solar arrays on farms where the farmer has all of his investment returned to him after one tax cycle. This doesn’t happen all of the time, but it does happen.”

Olinyk says farmers in the Midwest should consider both solar and wind systems when calculating payback. “In some regions of the country, a wind turbine may be the better option.”

“We do site assessments for every potential customer. We will compare the costs of wind and solar, measure the projected energy output, and determine the [return on investment] for each one. And we give you a conservative estimate on the returns.”

For more information, visit harvest harvestenergysolutions.com.

Iowa Nearly Hits $1.5 Million Cap on Solar Energy Tax Credits

Solarfield

Businesses received 97 solar energy tax credits in 2013 worth $987,830

Original source: The Gazette

Iowa awarded $1.36 million worth of tax credits to individuals and businesses in 2013 for installing solar energy panels and related equipment, almost hitting the annual cap of $1.5 million for the green energy tax breaks.

The Iowa Department of Revenue, in an annual report released Thursday, reported it awarded 264 tax credits for solar energy systems through Dec. 27. The agency said that number could still grow as not all applications received in 2013 were processed at the time of the report’s release.

The solar energy credits awarded in 2013 were substantially more than the $621,100 awarded in 2012.

The Department of Revenue, in its forecast of potential future tax credit liabilities, expects $817,403 worth of solar energy tax credits in fiscal year 2014, $1.3 million in FY 2015, $1.4 million in FY 2016 and $1.5 million in FY 2017 before the total falls below $1 million in FY 2018.

Iowa businesses received 97 of the solar energy tax credits in the last year worth $987,830. The other 167 credits were given to individuals for a total of $368,329.

Companies on average were awarded $10,184 for each tax credit, while individuals on average were awarded $2,206 for each credit.

Iowa’s solar energy tax credit was was enacted in May 2012, but was retroactive to solar energy systems placed in service on or after Jan. 1, 2012.

The Iowa tax credit for individuals cannot exceed $3,000. The tax credit for a corporation cannot exceed $15,000.