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Solar energy is catching on with Iowa farmers

Iowa turkey barn, solar panelsIowa’s wind generation strength is well documented, as large and small turbines rise all over the state. And now farmers all over Iowa are finding that capturing the energy from the sun also makes sense to reduce energy costs.

"There’s a 100-percent guarantee that the cost of sun will not increase in the next 100 years. Since you’ll spend money either way for electricity, it makes sense to consider solar energy," said Rob Hach, president of Wind and Solar Specialists (WASS) of Alta.

Many Iowa livestock farmers have installed solar energy equipment on the roofs of their hog or turkey barns, while others have added ground-mounted systems, said Bill Haman, renewable energy program manager with the Iowa Energy Center in Ames. "I’m seeing more solar, especially in eastern and southeast Iowa, where wind energy resources aren’t as plentiful as in northwest Iowa," he noted.

There has been a definite shift toward solar energy in Iowa in recent years, said Regi Goodale, director of regulatory affairs for the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives (IAEC). Prior to 2008, Iowa RECs had interconnected 28 member-consumer owned renewable systems. Eight of these systems were solar. "Today, 172 of the 385 renewable energy systems owned by member-consumers that have been interconnected are solar," Goodale said.

Solar energy has become more viable for a number of reasons. In the last three to four years, the price of solar equipment has plunged, Haman said. The global recession hit European countries especially hard, cutting demand substantially in some of the world’s largest consumers of solar photovoltaic equipment, from Spain to Greece. In addition, some major European countries rescinded financial incentives for solar energy, Haman said.

Meanwhile, China had ramped up its production of solar components. "The cost of solar panels from China is substantially lower than what the market had seen before," said Haman, who added that prices are stabilizing as the market rebalances.

Attractive federal and state tax incentives for the installation of solar equipment have also brought solar to the forefront. In May 2014, Gov. Terry Branstad continued this trend by signing the solar tax credit bill, which expands the scope of Iowa’s incentive program. "All these factors have helped solar installation costs reach historically low levels," Haman said.

Homework necessary

Thinking about installing a solar energy system? Consider these tips:

Maximize energy efficiency. Start by implementing energy-efficiency measures, from energy-efficient lighting to variable-drive motors, before you install a renewable system. "This can save you money by reducing your overall energy consumption," Goodale said. "This also reduces the size of the system you’ll need to meet your energy needs."

Meet with your rural electric cooperative. These specialists can help you to understand interconnection requirements and point you in the right direction for credible resources to help you with the analysis process. Maintaining the safety and reliability of the overall power grid is essential, Goodale said. "Your electric cooperative will walk you through a number of preliminary safety precautions that must be considered."

Analyze your electric loads. Calculating your electricity use and overall energy needs will help you determine whether a renewable energy system is a good investment for you. A thorough examination of your electricity needs will also help you determine how your energy usage fluctuates throughout the day and during the year, and calculate the size of the system you will need.

Visit with your tax advisor. Since there are many financial incentives available with solar energy, work with your tax advisor to see what fits your situation, Goodale said.

Understand the components. While standardization wasn’t always common with wind turbines in years past, solar is a different story. Solar panels not only meet standards established by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), but they are tested by UL, a global, independent company, Haman said.

The panels are also rated by a known input of solar energy, he added. If a panel is rated for 100 watts, for example, it will generate 100 watts with a solar intensity equal to 1,000 watts per square meter at standard conditions.

Find a reputable installer. The searchable database on the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners’ (NABCEP) website at www.nabceop.org is a good place to start. "Solar energy is still a buyer-beware market, so do your due diligence," Haman said.

 

Maulsby is a freelance writer in Lake City.