By DARCY DOUGHERTY MAULSBY
LAKE CITY – When Dwight Dial’s local electric utility raised his rates from residential to commercial a year and a half ago, he’d had enough.
“My electric rates nearly doubled,” said Dial, who farms near Lake City in an area that’s served by MidAmerican Energy rather than a rural electrical cooperative. “That was a big incentive to look into solar energy.”
After doing his homework and visiting with some solar firms, Dial, a contract hog producer who finishes 3,000 hogs each year, raises a 100-head ewe flock and grows 685 acres of corn and soybeans, decided to go with Iowa-based CB Solar.
Dial collected his electrical usage data from the past three years so the solar company could determine how many kilowatts would be required to power Dial’s home and farm. An analysis revealed that a 39,000-kilowatt system would power everything he required.
When it was time to install the system this summer, Dial said the process took less than three days.
The drop in Dial’s power bill has been dramatic since his solar equipment started powering his home and farm in mid-July. While his May-June 2018 electrical bill was $762 and the June-July bill was $580, the bill dropped to $263 after the solar system had run for 17 days in mid- to late-July. His August-September bill plunged to $77.
“It was a great day when we flipped the switch to solar,” said Dial, who estimates a payback period of three and a half years for his solar equipment. “It makes even more sense when you consider the estimated increases in electricity rates in the years ahead.”
Counting the cost
While the cost of Dial’s solar project totaled $85,000, he paid only a fraction of this, thanks to current tax incentives, grants and other resources. He received a 30 percent federal tax credit, along with a 15 percent state tax credit, for installing his solar energy system.
He also worked with a local grant writer to apply for a federal grant, which he received.
“That helped pick up another 13 percent of the system’s total cost,” Dial said. “With all the incentives, it was like paying $27 for something that normally costs $100.”
After figuring out how to pay for the system, Dial had to decide where to site the equipment. While the panels can be mounted on roofs, he decided he didn’t want new equipment installed on his older buildings. He felt a ground installation would be better on his farm, in a grassy area north of his swine confinement barn, although he had one specific request.
“It needed to be 4 feet about the ground, because I didn’t want sheep climbing on it,” he said. “They can graze under it that way, too.”
The equipment, which includes solar panels manufactured in Vietnam and inverters made in Israel, has a third-party warranty guaranteed for 25 years. The solar equipment is designed to handle up to golf ball-sized hail and 90 mile-per-hour winds. The equipment is also guaranteed at 82 percent productivity after 25 years.
“My equipment supplier said he wouldn’t be surprised if our family is still using this equipment 40 years later,” Dial said.
While sunny summer days provide plenty of energy for the solar equipment, what about winter?
“The drier the air, the more power you generate,” Dial said.
When his solar equipment generates more power than is needed for his farm and home, half of the excess power goes to MidAmerican Energy.
“Then they pay me 2 cents per kilowatt for the rest,” he said.
While solar power has provided Dial with an immediate benefit of lower electrical bills, he believes the system’s true value will become even more pronounced in the future.
“If there’s a 4 percent increase in the cost of electricity in the next 25 years, that equates to $230,000 in energy savings with solar.”
Focusing on the future
Taking the long view and trying new things is nothing new to Dial, who became one of the first no-till farmers in his area in the 1980s, as well one of the first farmers in his area to meet the highest levels of the voluntary Conservation Security Program from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
In his quest to conserve natural resources, Dial has also added grass waterways, built terraces, installed buffer strips to slow water runoff and incorporated cover crops to increase soil health. All this helped him earn a number of conservation honors, including the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s (IDALS) Environmental Leader Award.
Dial’s grandchildren have picked up on the fact that he focuses on continuous improvement.
“I had to laugh when my grandson Brendan saw the solar equipment and said, ‘Grandpa, you’re really a modern farmer,'” Dial said.
While he acknowledges that solar power may not be right for every farm, it made sense for him and for future generations of his family.
“My son, Andy, and his family plan to move back here when he and his wife retire from serving in the military,” Dial said. “They’ll be the ones benefiting from the solar power for years to come.”
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