Farm the sun

Offset energy loads and provide a habitat for pollinators.

The power of the sun captured passively in solar arrays boosts energy independence and economic returns on the farm.

While solar has been cost-prohibitive to farmers in the past, the rising cost of electricity and the dropping cost of solar installation has created a compelling crossroads. Now, the investment and payback make financial sense.

Jeremy Lipinski, managing partner of Emergent Solar Energy in West Lafayette, Indiana, says the solar projects his company has designed and built within the past year have had five-year paybacks. That short timeline is achieved with the proper utilization of tax credits and grants.

“A payback under seven years becomes very compelling because the components we install generally have a 25-year production warranty from the manufacturer and a 30-year economic life,” Lipinski explains.

Avoided costs of utilities can reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on the size of an operation. 

Money saved over the course of 30 years is then a resource for the farm that can mean security for the next generation.

On-Farm Solar Economics

The initial step to determine whether solar makes sense is an analysis of the energy load. Lipinski recommends first reducing your energy load and then applying solar.

“If you can change how you run your grain dryers, for example, which are run heavily in the fall and not used for a large portion of the year, you can reduce the kilowatt demand charges,” Lipinski says.

Demand charges are based on the highest level of electricity supplied at one time during a billing period and at the time of day it is needed by the farm.

The demand charges may be a large part of the bill if your operation uses a lot of power over a short time period and a smaller part of the bill if power is used at a fairly constant rate throughout
the month.

Lipinski says the goal is to shave the demand peaks, thereby reducing energy spikes from the grain operation’s induction motor starts. Solar can help offset some of these peaks depending on when they occur. Time of operation changes and
energy-efficiency upgrades will also have a positive impact on the demand portion of the bill. 

Hog barns are uniquely suited for solar because their energy load resembles an arc from day to night. A steady load like this throughout the year is charged by the utility in kilowatt hours, which can be eliminated with solar.

“The typical farm we see has around two 4,000-head hog barns, a 100,000- to 500,000-bushel grain storage system, a number of outbuildings, and a house,” Lipinski says. 

Lipinski considers the tax liability, ability to use the solar tax credits in a timely manner, and whether USDA grants are available. He also designs solar projects to ensure they achieve a high percentage of energy load offset, usually between 75% and 90%. The higher the offset, the better the project returns will be, and the likelihood of getting funding from a USDA grant increases.

Energy consumption data determine the offset percentage and with that information, Lipinski builds an economic proposal. “We start with the optimal size to get the highest economic returns and work our way down to an investment amount the farmer is comfortable making and that is suitable for the specific operation,” he says.

On-farm solar projects, especially applications like hog barns, do well when grid-tied for the reliability. The alternative requires battery storage, which is generally cost-prohibitive. Most farms don’t consume all the energy produced from the solar array, so the net metering benefits the project economics as well.

The Harlow Farm

William Harlow is a sixth-generation farmer in Tipton County, Indiana, where he grows corn and soybeans on about 2,500 acres. In 2019, he worked with Emergent Solar to design and install a 124-kilowatt array that offsets 90% of the farm’s total energy load.

The Harlow farm consists of finishing hog barns, a grain handling system for storage, outbuildings including a shop and dog kennel business, and the family’s home.

Before starting his solar project, Harlow researched the potential for other green energy applications on his farm, including wind. Solar just made sense.

“Unfortunately, the farm economy is now squeezing from both directions with high equipment costs and fertilizer inputs, and the market not being anywhere near what we want,” Harlow says. “Anything I can do, even if it means spending money in the short term to eliminate spending a lot more money in long term, that’s something I’m definitely interested in.”

One input Harlow has eliminated with the solar project on the farm is mowing and spraying the space around the array. This is thanks to the seeded pollinator habitat that Lipinski incorporated into the final project.

The Bee & Butterfly Habitat Fund out of Minnesota provided Lipinski a custom seed mix of native vegetation to support the environment and ecosystem needs in central Indiana.

Ground-mounted solar arrays typically span 1 to 2 acres and are built in fallow ground between barns, or they’re set back from a field to avoid shade from a corn crop. 

“The array and the pollinator habitat both have a ‘set it and forget it’ mentality. Fixed ground solar has no moving parts, and we only do a semiannual diagnostic for the farmer,” Lipinski says.

Pairing solar with a wildlife habitat amplifies the green energy on the farm.

“As a farmer in the plant business, I know that having plants and pollinators work side by side with the farm is a mutual benefit,” Harlow says. “I don’t have to mow, I’m getting the benefits of a wildflower field, and it’s yielding me solar energy.”

Future of Solar

Every farm that can go solar will go solar as installation costs continue to drop, Lipinski says.

The nationwide average cost increase in grid electricity is 3%, he adds. “How many 3% annual increases do you need to afford solar? Lowering your input costs to get the same output is worth pursuing,” he says.

Now, many solar projects are retrofitted into operations. In the future, solar will be designed, optimized, and built into structures from the onset, further reducing costs.

“Although I focus on project economics, I don’t want to diminish the environmental impact solar has,” Lipinski says.

Harlow is driven by the power of technology and clean energy, and he looks forward to the long-term benefits of both. “Do your research on solar – don’t just jump in. But like a lot of things, if it’s something you’re interested in, then it’s something you should probably do.”

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