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Harnessing the sun, rather than wind

By Staff | Mar 29, 2012

Pomeroy farmer Gregg Heide expects to offset all of his farm’s electrical energy consumption with electricity he produces from a solar array, shown behind him. The collection of panels generate up to 10,000 watts of electricity.

By Dave DeValois/Farm News staff writer

POMEROY-Gregg Heide originally planned to harness the wind through a small commercial wind farm near his Calhoun County corn and soybean farm here.

But after working through detailed plans, which included attaining property leases and permits for the wind turbines, he realized that he’d never make a profit from that venture.

The problem, according to Heide, is that the community-based wind farm would have earned far less for the energy it would have generated than what the local electric cooperative pays for other energy it receives.

So, when the wind project hit the doldrums, he instead switched his energies to solar power for his farm.

After months of planning and research, this bright idea now generates up to 10,000 watts of energy through 44 solar panels, strategically placed on a southern exposure on a small strip of land behind a machine shed on his farm.

The solar panels, called a solar array, start the morning by producing about 3,600 watts, reach a peak of 10,000 watts at about noon and then slowly wane until producing no power after sunset.

Direct current flows from the solar panels a short distance to a converter in his machine shed, then is converted to alternating current, which can be used on the farm.

“I’m on my own power throughout the day and then switch back at night,” Heide said. So far, he’s been able to offset all of his power bills and he anticipates he’ll generate enough electricity to offset the 15,000 kilowatt hours that his farm uses in an average year.

Heide is reluctant to talk about his investment for the solar array, but is comfortable putting it in these terms: If his calculations are correct, the alternative energy system will pay for itself in about 13 years.

“In essence, what we’ve done is pay for our electricity in advance,” he said.

While there are some grants and a no-interest revolving loan fund available from the Iowa Energy Center for solar projects and other alternative energy systems, Heide chose to go through a local lender to finance the project.

Heide said he had to educate his lender somewhat, but was able to secure the loan.

The solar array was constructed to withstand the rigors of northwest Iowa’s winters and winds. Poles supporting the solar panels were sunk 7 feet into the black, rich soil and are supported with 3 feet of concrete beneath them, according to Heide. The entire solar array is designed to last 30 years.

Heide’s alternative energy set up is known as a behind-the-meter system, meaning that his house and farm use the electric power he produces when it’s available, but he also has power from the local co-op available after sunset or on cloudy days.

Occasionally, he adds to the power grid by producing “excess” power. The savings, however, come mostly from displacing his own power bills, since the rate he gets in energy credits is far less than what he pays to the cooperative per kilowatt hour.

Heide’s solar array generates electricity through a photovoltaic system, meaning that light from the sun is used to directly generate electricity through solar panels.

The Iowa Energy Center’s website describes the system as: “Simply put, photovoltaic systems are like any other electrical power generating systems; just the equipment used is different than that used for conventional electromechanical generating systems.

However, the principles of operation and interfacing with other electrical systems remain the same, and are guided by a well-established body of electrical codes and standards.”

Heide said he’s pleased to be producing his own power from a clean, renewable source. But that’s not what he set out to do.

“I got into it from an economic development standpoint and a farm diversification standpoint,” Heide said. He planned to diversify his farm income through a wind farm, but when that didn’t pan out, he researched the solar energy angles, called lots of friends and acquaintances, and even visited a farmer in Cedar Rapids with a solar array.

So far, the solar generators are producing about 25 percent more power than he projected after six months. The winter months even produced more energy than expected.

“The cold weather actually helps production … and snow on the ground reflects more light onto the array,” Heide said.

Heide, who serves as vice president of the Iowa Farmers Union, said he doesn’t have any official ties with solar energy or alternative energy groups in Iowa, but “whether you intend to or not you become an advocate.”

You can reach Dave DeValois at dwdevalois@yahoo.com.

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