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What is one of the very few solar-powered center pivots operating on a farm has readily proven its worth for the innovative family farm that invested in the technology. The Ivener farm operation of Whiting, Iowa, installed an array of 22 solar panels that don’t provide all the power needed to actually run their pivot directly.
However, the accumulated 11,000 to 12,000 kilowatts of electricity created by the panels during the entire year does allow Dolf Ivener to run the family’s pivot virtually cost-free most years.
“In effect, all of the electricity produced by the solar panels goes into the grid operated by Western Iowa Power Cooperative, or WIPCO, which is a rural electric co-op that serves Monona County and eight other surrounding counties,” Ivener explains.
Power cooperative acts as a storage bank
“The co-op essentially acts as a bank in which I deposit electrical credit. In an average year, it’s enough electricity to power the pump and propel the pivot four times around the field,”
Ivener says, adding that the meter in the field reads electricity going each direction. “There are no batteries capable of saving that kind of energy. On the sunniest day, I’d still only be able to generate about half the power I would need to make a circle with the pivot, so WIPCO essentially functions as the battery.”
If Ivener uses less electricity than he generates during the year, which was the case last year, the electric cooperative writes him a check that amounts to 4.5¢ for each unit of excess kilowatt. If, on the other hand, Ivener encounters a dry year and has to run the pivot more than four times, he has to pay for the difference at a rate of 11¢ per kilowatt.
“If I have to write them a check, I consider it a loss,” he says.
“However, due to all the rainfall this past year, I only ran the pivot two times, which meant they wrote me a check in September,” he continues. “One trip was to apply ½ inch of water with postemergence nitrogen and the other trip was to apply a second ½ inch to water it in.”
Tax credit help
All told, Ivener spent about $110,000 for both the center pivot system and the solar panels. However, a 30% federal tax credit and an 18% state tax credit covered nearly half the cost of the solar system. Plus, Ivener designed and installed the solar system himself, which reduced his overall cost.
No stranger to solar power, Ivener was a Sioux City, Iowa, businessman involved in construction and property management before he became a farmer. Consequently, he had previously installed solar panels at commercial property and apartment complexes he and his sisters own in Sioux City and St. Louis.
Ivener points out that the price of solar panels has dropped, while the electrical output per panel section has increased. This could make the use of solar power for irrigation appealing to more farmers in the future.
Get an agreement
“The key,” he insists, “is having a long-term agreement with the utility company for a program known as net metering. If the company insists on balancing input and usage on a monthly basis instead of annually, or if there is a potential for them to cancel the agreement in one or two years, then it’s a bit of a gamble.”
Without any such problems, however, Ivener expects to pay for his solar system in six to 10 years. After that, it’s money in the bank.
A relative newcomer to farming, Ivener and his two sisters joined together three years ago to manage and farm 1,000 acres owned by their father, Kent Ivener.
While most of their farm is made up of dryland corn and soybeans, Ivener figures that irrigation is good insurance against drought conditions.