I started my green energy switch by accident years ago with a solar fence charger. At the time, being eco-friendly wasn’t my goal, I wanted to divide a pasture for rotation and I just didn’t have a power source to that field. I was shocked that the fence charger was 3 times the price of a plug-in charger but I quickly found out the benefits far out-weighed the costs. That’s kind of how solar is. Having to run power out to that field would have been very expensive. Plus (I quickly learned) I never had to worry about that fence losing its “zap” in a power outage. It was awesome! When the power went out the battery (full of free sun power) kept the charge going and then automatically recharged all day long! I quickly switched all my electric fence chargers to solar.
I was so enamored with this concept that I investigated other options for solar use on my farm. I switched my outside lights to solar, my exhaust fan and my hot water heater in my tack room. Dang! I was on to something!
Turns out if you can use it on your farm, you can pretty much do it with a solar power. Your upfront costs for the product might be higher than traditionally powered versions and initially these products might not add up to a significant savings in your pocket book, but over time you will definitely see the difference, especially if you utilize multiple products. The extra bonus was reducing my farm’s impact to our Planet felt pretty good. So this got me thinking….if using single use solar products added this much savings in my pocket book and a reduction in my farm’s energy use, what would happen if I switched the entire farm’s energy source to solar? Could I do it? Should I go off the grid? How much would it cost? Where do I start? Whether you are retrofitting an existing electrical system or are lucky enough to have new construction, any barn can utilize solar. There are a couple of questions you should ask yourself first:
Does your barn have a South facing roof or an area large enough for a pole mounted system that faces South? Does your farm get at least 6 hours of sun per day?
If the answer is YES then you should consider it. There is no sense trying to figure it out on your own so find a reliable solar installer in your area and let them help. They know your climate conditions, zoning and can give you an estimate specific for your farm. Although solar can be seen as a “new industry,” there are well-established solar contractors all over and it’s important to find and use them. Most solar equipment manufacturers can refer you to qualified local installers and the following Web sites can also help you locate an installer in your area: www.find-solar.org www.getsolar.com www.ases.org (American Solar Energy Society) Now back to my project…..Ok, I did my research and my farm is a good candidate, I found a reputable installer and I called them with my list of questions:
Q: What exactly IS solar power? A: A solar system harnesses the sun’s energy to provide electricity through the installation of photovoltaic (PV) cells. When sunlight hits a PV cell, the cell absorbs some of the photons (particle of light) and the photons’ energy is transferred to an electron (in the semiconductor material. With the energy from the photon, the electron can escape its usual position in the semiconductor atom to become part of the current in an electrical circuit. Photovoltaic (PV) modules make electricity from sunlight, and are marvelously simple, effective, and durable.
Q: Can solar panels be put on any barn? A: Absolutely! The possibilities, varieties, and ranges for the use of solar on barns are endless. The only concern is that if the roof or roof-support systems are in need of repair, a barn may need structural adjustments before solar panels can be installed.
Q: What can I “run” off my solar system? A: The correct size solar system can power your entire farm (including your house) or just certain electrical equipment. A smaller system can be designated to provide power for indoor and outdoor lighting, water pumps, trough bubblers, hot water heaters, even underfloor heating for tack rooms. Solar can also provide emergency backup for things like priority lighting, water filtering, and space heating during electrical outages.
Q: How much sun do you need to make a system viable? What if I live in a notoriously cloudy region, like the Northeast or Seattle? A: New technology has made solar panels more effective -- even on cloudy days --so it is now possible to use solar in all parts of the country. All you need is a site on your property that receives approximately six hours of sunlight a day. A south-facing roof is a plus, but pole-mounting is a great option if you don’t have the roof area.
Q: What kinds of solar systems are there? A: Any type of solar system harnesses the sun’s energy to provide electricity through the installation of photovoltaic (PV) cells, which convert sunlight into electricity but there are two main ways to configure a solar energy system; Grid Connected and Stand Alone (or off grid). Grid connected systems are cheaper, easier to install and maintain, and operate more efficiently than battery-based systems of comparable size. Their main drawback is that when the grid goes down, they cannot provide any energy for you to use. If the grid in your area is mostly reliable and outages are infrequent, these systems can offer the best payback for the least price.
Independence is chief among the reasons for wanting an off-grid Stand Alone system. Off-grid systems are not subject to the terms or policies of the local utility, so you will not be subjected to rate increases, blackouts, or brownouts. If you’re shopping for rural property, you’ll probably find that off-grid parcels are less expensive. Being off-grid can also be cheaper than getting a utility line extended to a property.
Q: How will I know what size system I need? A: Determining system size really depends on what you will be using it for. There is no "one size fits all" voltage/current rating for you to have installed in your barn because everyone has different sizes and number of appliances you use. A good start would be to decide what uses (lights), appliances (fridge?) and other things (fans?) you want your system to provide power to then speak with a professional. You can get an idea by looking at your power bill, you will see your monthly kilowatt hour usage. This is how much electricity you used for that month and were charged for. Normally your power company will bill you based on a rate per kWh. Sometimes this rate varies depending on the time of day or your usage. When shopping for solar power systems, it's useful to know what your kWh usage per month is. It gets a little techy here but bear with me……A watt is a unit of power that measures the rate of energy transfer or usage. A kilowatt is equal to 1,000 watts. A kilowatt hour is the amount of electricity used. To calculate the amount of electricity your barn list uses in kilowatt hours, take each appliance’s wattage, multiply it by the number of hours you use it, and divide by 1,000. For example, if you take a 100-watt light bulb and use it for 540 hours, the light bulb will use 54 kWh of electricity. Once you understand your needs better you can begin to look at solar system options. You need a big enough system to provide that much electricity every day, and allow for cloudy days, etc. There are really good contractors that can answer all your system requirement questions and for you Do-It-Yourselfers you can’t find a better resource than http://www.builditsolar.com/index.htm
Q: Will I need to get zoning approval? A: Yes, not everyone thinks big, shiny panels on your barn roof are sexy so zoning approval and permits are required although they are not usually difficult to procure. Both zoning and permits are usually within the jurisdiction of individual municipalities, but some codes are national.
Q: Is there much maintenance involved? A: There is virtually no maintenance involved with solar systems, with the exception of replacing batteries on off-grid systems. Solar panels have no moving parts and are warrantied by most manufacturers for 30 years.
Q: What about the cost? In strictly economic terms, the rate of return for your PV system depends on three things—solar resource; electricity prices; and state policies or incentives. Cost always depends on the size of the system; the more power (kilowatts) you want to generate the more PV cells you will need. Smaller systems can help offset the power for a few things like a hot water system or fencing but if you want to generate enough to run your entire barn (and maybe even your home) you will need a large system with many panels and PV cells. The cost per installed watt of residential PV systems ranges from $5 to $8, which includes everything—modules, inverter, disconnects, racking, wire, and conduit to taxes, shipping, installation labor, and permitting. Reducing the cost is the uncapped 30% federal tax credit. Additionally, many individual states, municipalities, and utilities offer rebates that can further offset a PV system’s cost. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE; www.dsireusa.org) organizes incentive programs by state and program type, making incentives easy to research. So this means that smaller systems can start as low as $1,000 and entire farm systems usually start at $25,000 and go up. One way you can hold the cost in check is to use an incremental plan where you start small and add on as money permits. Either way you go, over time the system will pay for its upfront costs and you will eventually have NO ELECTRIC BILL! (and of course I have to add how good you will feel reducing that carbon footprint).
OK, OK……So what does all this mean to me? I decided to estimate my 6 stall center aisle barn using the system to power an exhaust fan, a stall fan for each horse in the summer, a heated bucket for each horse in the winter, the inside lights, an insta-hot water heater, and a small baseboard heater in the tack/feed room. I will use my solar outside lights with their own small panels and continue to use solar fence chargers. My solar company estimated that my barn system needs to generate 1 KW of power (as large as some small house systems) to run my barn's demands and it would cost around $15,000. Since I have a separate electric meter (bill) for my barn I already know my barn requires about $150 per month. So that is $1,800 per year. It will take me a little over 8 years to "pay for" my investment but after that NO ELECTRIC BILL!! Did I mention that already? Hope this article gave you some insight and info to ignite (get it?) your solar journey. Let the sun shine! Until we meet again….