By JIM MAURER
CUSTAR — Solar energy is an option for farmers who want to reduce electricity use in their barns or grain-drying operation.
While the initial financial outlay is sizable, payback is relatively quick, Eric Romich, Ohio State University Extension energy field specialist, said Thursday during an Extension field day at the Northwest Agricultural Research Station, Custar.
Bruce Clevenger, Defiance County’s agriculture/natural resources educator, joined Romich for the solar energy presentation, one of four programs presented to about 60 farmers.
Other presentations were on the benefits of nitrogen for soybeans; late-season insect issues for soybeans; and the potential impact of herbicide-tolerance technology on specialty crops such as fruits and vegetables.
Each presentation lasted about 30 minutes. Tractor-pulled wagons took visitors to various parts of the research station, where Extension personnel made the presentations.
Romich, a former economic development director in Wyandot County, said 2008 state legislation directed utilities to include alternative energy options, such as wind and solar.
He was involved in development of the Wyandot solar project on 85 acres with 159,000 solar panels installed adjacent to the county airport. It was finished in 2010 and the electricity generated is purchased by American Electric Power.
Besides large-scale solar systems sending electricity to the utility grid, there are smaller systems that can provide electricity for a residence or business, he said. Farms use solar systems for livestock buildings, hog barns and grain driers.
He demonstrated a portable version which could be transported in a pickup truck and fit through a doorway. It generates 140 watts of electricity when there is sunlight.
The panels used at residences or on farms mainly generate 250 or 300 watts, he said.
The main components are a solar panel, direct current disconnect box, charge controller, and a battery, he said.
“The battery, and energy storage, is a huge challenge,” he said.
Battery use is eliminated by using solar panels to supply electricity to a utility’s grid.
Clevenger said an advantage for farmers who want to offset some, or all, of their electricity needs on the farm is to use “net metering,” a billing arrangement allowed in Ohio.
If there is more electricity produced than needed, he said, the excess flows back into the grid. That creates a billing credit with the utility company, which the farmer can use later.
There are 43 states with a net metering policy, he said. In Ohio, investor-owned utilities such as American Electric Power and First Energy Solutions are required to offer net metering to customers. Rural electric cooperatives are not required, but are expected to partner with farmers to provide the option.
Romich said net metering requires the solar panel system to be placed on the owner’s property. So, if family land is subdivided, the system must be installed on the system owner’s portion.
The farmer is required to spend the credits yearly, Clevenger said. Investor-owned utilities cannot limit the size of a farm’s system, but a rural electric cooperative is allowed to limit size.
An example they presented was a 75-kilowatt system constructed with 300 panels, 250 watts each. It would operate a grain drier operation, Romich said.
Romich gave another example of a farmer who is paying 3 cents per kilowatt hour on a grain drier, but 13 cents per kilowatt hour on a large barn. So, a solar panel system was installed on the barn.
While the initial capital outlay is large, Romich said there is little maintenance cost and a 30 percent federal tax credit, which is retroactive for one year and available for 20 years.
He gave an example of a $93,000 solar system to provide electricity for a 2,400-head hog finishing operation.
The owner expected a six-year payback. With solar panels lasting 25 years, it was a good investment, Romich said.
Issues to be considered besides the cost include where to place solar panels for efficiency and appearance, and whether there are zoning requirements for the panels.
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