Alternative energy options abound for those interested in supplying more of their own energy.
But for Wisconsin farmers, it’s likely going to be solar energy that makes the most sense, according to Adam Wehling, dean of agriculture, energy, construction and transportation at Chippewa Valley Technical College.
Wind and geothermal are options in the Midwest, but “we’re really digging deeper into solar, and that is pretty much the primary (option) for a lot of dairy farms, commercial businesses, recreational home owners,” Wehling said during a recent Professional Dairy Producers webinar.
“When it comes to solar, there is tremendous opportunity out here,” Wehling said. “We’re kind of in this solar era.”
As solar panels have significantly dropped in cost in recent years, arrays have been going up on operations across the Midwest, Wehling said.
“You know the price point is good when it’s really hitting big stream in the ag sector,” Wehling said. Wehling said he has his own solar 9.1 kilowatt solar array on the barn of his family’s hobby farm.
Plus, solar panel installation can come with incentives, rebate programs and grant program opportunities that when combined might whittle the producer’s final cost down to as low as 15-20% of the full price.
But, Wehling said, it’s important to remember that solar panels are likely to require a significant investment upfront before reimbursement for some of those costs later through the available programs.
It might be tempting to wait to see if the cost of solar panels continues to drop. Wehling isn’t sure that’s a good strategy. He said even if solar panel costs do go down further, those savings may be offset in the increased cost of the skilled labor needed to to install the panels.
Before launching into everything solar potentially has to offer, producers should be certain to contact their utility provider. Anyone’s specific experience with renewable energy is going to greatly depend on the provider they have and the parameters and caps that utility sets on renewable energy.
“Everybody kind of manages renewable energy differently,” Wehling said.
The parameters allowed for the solar energy generated for buildings at Chippewa Valley Technical College are different that the parameters allowed to Wehling’s home as a residential owner with a different utility provider.
“So the first thing you need to do is you probably need to start making a list here of what are the questions I need to ask my utility provider,” Wehling said. “It’s the first place you start before you even go to a solar energy contractor.”
It’s also important to know what type of metering your has before looking into solar. Most solar operations will be a grid-tied system as opposed to an off-the-grid system. Off-the-grid systems that rely on battery storage aren’t very scalable or cost effective for farms at this time.
The net metering term — the length of time energy credits from the solar array can be banked — offered by the utility will also need to be a consideration.
Wehling said his home net metering term lets solar credits build up in a 12-month period during which they must be used. That 12-month time period is particularly useful because the credits built up during an oversupply of solar energy in the summer months can be used in the less sunny months later in the net metering cycle.
Not all net metering terms are 12 months, though. Some companies use six-month, three-month or even 30-day periods. Not all systems will result in an oversupply of energy either.
But understanding the net metering term in cases where there will be times of oversupply is very important, Wehling said. If the credits from the oversupply aren’t used in time, the producer will only get a wholesale rate (such as 3 cents per kilowatt) for that extra energy as opposed to the rate of electricity they would otherwise purchase from the utility provider (such as 11-12 cents per kilowatt).
“Right now there’s no incentive to overproduce because 3 cents doesn’t really justify anything on solar production to help produce money toward that expense you put into it,” Wehling said.
Solar energy agreements with utilities are also likely to vary depending on if a farmer is producing energy primarily for their own use versus to sell back to the grid.
Farmers interested in implementing solar energy should also do their due diligence when selecting a contractor to set up their system, Wehling said. A utility provider may be able to provide recommendations, and Wehling also recommended that farmers reach out to the solar company’s client references, such as another farm that the solar contractor has worked with.
Another consideration for farmers will be where they’re going to put their solar system.
Barn roofs, as Wehling used, are one potentially good option, assuming the barns are structurally sound enough to bear extra weight without risk of collapse. Roof systems have the benefit of not taking up additional space ground-mounted systems require.
But ground-mounted systems have their own perks, too, Wehling said. For one, those ground systems can take advantage of some of the newest solar technology: bifacial solar panels. Traditionally, solar panels have been monofacial, with sunlight only able to be absorbed on one side, which works well when they’re mounted somewhere where light won’t reach the back of the panels anyway.
But ground-mounted systems with bifacial panels offer the chance to capitalize on both sides of the panel. A monofacial panel, which have gotten more efficient themselves, could draw 300 watts, while a bifacial panel might be able to draw 400 watts, Wehling said.
Ground solar panels might also be able to tip to follow the course of the sun during the day or be seasonally adjusted.
“I encourage people to do their research, do their homework on the different layouts,” Wehling said.
Those choosing a ground system will also have to consider factors about where on the ground to mount their panels.
Ground-mounted panels can last 30 years, Wehling said, so farmers should make sure to choose a spot where they’re not planning to build a structure, place a driveway or do anything else with the land. Considering the levels of dust or shade the panels might get exposed to is also worth thinking about.
In most cases it should be possible to have a fixed mount solar panel where rain can wash off dust or pollen that accumulates and where snow can slide off. Solar companies will also remotely monitor the panels for any deviations that might indicate a problem for the solar contractor to fix.
“You can literally not have to do anything with these if you don’t want to,” Wehling said.