Harvesting solar energy
By KRISS NELSON
MADRID – Harvest is just beginning for many producers, but Steve Pies has been harvesting all summer – harvesting solar energy, that is.
Pies said he had been considering options to help lower his electrical bills on his farm near Madrid. With the help of Jake West, solar energy specialist with VanWall Energy, a solar project was placed on the roof of his shop and it went online collecting solar energy on June 1.
“I wanted to save money on electric bills,” he said. “I didn’t want to do a ground unit, and I have been considering this for about the last year. It seems like electric bills just keep creeping higher and higher.”
“Everybody’s situation is different, but get a hold of somebody like Jake, and see if it will work. Those numbers worked for me.”
West said Pies’ unit is a 26 kilowatt flesh mount solar array that is capable of providing 85 to 90 percent of the Pies’ electricity for their farm and house.
However, if there will be any drying done this year on the Pies’ farm, he said the project won’t be able to offset those energy costs.
“It’s designed to eliminate the majority of his electric bill,” said West.
And according to Pies, it has done just that.
Before they went online with their solar project, Pies said their electric bills were running, on average, $330 to $350 a month.
“My electric bill for the month of June was $28,” he said. “And June was a peak month for sunlight. My July bill was about $80 a month and I was still happy with that because we are running two whole house air conditioning units and August was also $80 a month, but we had a lot more cloudy days in August.”
West said they anticipate the Pies’ solar project should pay for itself in four years, which, he added, is due in part to federal and state tax credits.
The solar tax credit, West said, is a part of the recent Farm Bill, so depending on what happens with any changes to that bill, as of right now, those solar tax credits are due to expire on December 31, 2019.
Pies said the entire installation process seemed to go very smoothly.
“I think it was six weeks from start to finish,” he said. “It all went better than expected. I talked to Jake and the next day he gave me the figures on pay back, what the cost was and everything, so that was fast. Then we had an interconnect agreement with Midland within 10 days. These guys are good to work with.”
West said they offer two options for solar projects – either ground or roof mounts.
For ground mounts, he said, there needs to be the right amount of space and the solar panels need to face south without anything shading them, and they want the project to be within 300 feet from the meter on the farm.
West said helping a customer find the best spot for a solar project is a part of the service they offer.
“We will come out and help them find the best solution,” he said.
West said VanWall Energy has installed solar projects on several hog, chicken, turkey and farm operations and commercial businesses as well.
“We have a business in Marshalltown where it is powering 75 extra percent of their electrical bill load on their roof,” he said
One large benefit to solar energy, is the low maintenance required.
“There’s no moving parts, and so that’s a big deal with Iowa’s producers because they don’t want anything more to have to worry about. It just sits there. And if there’s a problem, we can look at the project remotely from our smart phones and the customer can too,” he said. “If there’s a panel not producing, hopefully we will know about it before the customer does.”
This particular app, West said, allows them or the customer to view a project, look at what production was on a particular day and also look at individual solar modules. If a module is showing up black, for example, that means it’s either covered in snow, or something is wrong with it.
Another feature that attracted Pies to solar was the warranty and life expectancy of the solar panels.
“They’ve come a long way on this. The expected life span is 30 years and with tax energy credits this is really a no brainer,” said Pies.
West added that the solar modules have a 25 year output warranty.
One aspect of the solar panels that might surprise customers, West said, is that they are made to be about as strong as a windshield on a car and it takes a lot to break one.
In one instance, West said, there was a case where the solar panels actually protected that portion of a customer’s roof from hail.
“It is really a lower risk investment,” he said. “Solar is really coming on strong because the price had come down quite a bit. The efficiencies of the modules have gotten better, and it just costs less to install a solar project versus a wind turbine, plus the lower maintenance is a big thing.
“If you have the space, it is low profile and you can take advantage of the sun. Farmers are doing that already, growing their crops. We’re just trying to convert that energy of the sun into electricity.”
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