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How to choose your solar panel provider

Progressive Dairyman writer Michael Cox Published on 11 September 2015

Switching to solar energy may seem a daunting prospect for some dairy farmers; however, two California dairymen claim the process can be relatively straightforward, provided you know what to look out for.

Rosa Brothers Milk Company, based in Hanford, California, milks 1,000 cows and manufactures their milk into ice cream and flavored milk for local delivery. Last fall, they installed 1,880 solar panels on one acre of their farm.

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John Oostdam, of San Jacinto, California, milks 1,200 Holstein cows. His recent installation of 750 solar panels is providing electricity to run his dairy and two family homes.

Although electricity costs typically account for 5 to 10 percent of total dairy farm expenses, significant savings through solar energy can be achieved.

Selecting a provider

Once the initial decision has been made to consider using solar energy, the next step is to a select a solar panel provider. The Solar Energy Industries Association claims there are 8,000 solar companies nationwide. Selecting the right provider is arguably the most important decision, as the correct supplier can offer a cost-effective installation that maximizes return on investment.

Online discussion forums and trade magazines are good places to research solar providers, but it was while attending World Ag Expo in Tulare, California, that Oostdam discovered his future provider.

“They sat me down and discussed all the options that were available to me. Soon after, they came back with a proposal, which we’ve recently installed. The most important thing is to find a provider that will stand behind their product,” he says.

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Basing a provider decision on cost alone is a risk, according to Noel Rosa of Rosa Brothers: “After sending out bid requests to three companies, we ultimately chose one of the more expensive providers, as they offered the best after-sales service.”

Rosa Brothers was initially interested in using solar energy since it would reduce the carbon footprint and increase the sustainability of their milk products, something which their customers appreciate. The cost savings of 90 percent of the dairy electricity consumption has reassured Rosa Brothers that the right decision was made.

“California dairies have a high cost of production; anything that reduces cost has to be considered,” says Rosa.

Visiting solar installations in your local area is a useful exercise to learn more about the entire process. Speaking with other farmers can highlight potential issues that may arise on your farm.

Rosa was invited by his provider, Coldwell Solar, to visit a local orange processor who had installed solar panels on their manufacturing plant. At the time, no other dairies had made the switch to solar in his area. “It was great to see the system in action, and it opened my mind to the possibility of using solar power at our milk processing plant,” Rosa says.

After-sales service

Both farmers agree that good after-sales service has given them peace of mind on their investment. A provider that can offer off-site monitoring of the panels is a must-have, Oostdam says. “I’m a dairy farmer, not an engineer, so if my panels aren’t working right, I wouldn’t even know. Just last month a technician arrived on-farm to fix an issue I hadn’t even noticed.” Oostdam also chose Coldwell Solar as his provider.

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Taxes

Solar energy grants, tax concessions and rebates must also be considered before making an investment. Nationwide, the Solar Investment Tax Credit offers 30 percent tax relief for solar systems. This tax is a dollar-for-dollar reduction in payable income tax, a noteworthy benefit to reduce tax in high-income years.

The Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System allows farmers to recover the capital cost of a system through annual deductions for depreciation. Also, local incentives will vary by state.

For example, California, which has targets to supply 33 percent of its electricity with renewable energy by 2030, had a 10 percent rebate on solar investments in 2014. This was a key factor in Rosa’s decision to invest. Both farmers expect a return on investment of approximately five years, although rising or falling energy costs could change this prediction.

Structural and safety issues

Like many aspects of dairy farming, there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to solar installation. Each farm has a different layout and energy requirement.

The location of solar panels will be dictated by terrain, tie-ins to the existing power grid, their proximity to the dairy and, of course, access to clear sunlight.

Panels may not always need to be placed in a south-facing direction, either. Rosa’s installer opted for an east-west direction, as this would minimize the space requirement of the installation. Normal north-south- facing panels usually produce slightly more energy but require more space between rows to prevent shadowing of the panels.

Safety issues also need to be considered when carrying out practical on-farm installation work. Apart from the need to be mindful of young children around machinery, Rosa warned to take note of existing underground infrastructure.

“The posts holding the panels go down about 5 feet into the ground. Our gas company had told us about a small gas line close by, but they forgot to tell us about the big gas pipe.” Discovery of this potential hazard forced the entire site to be shifted by a few meters.

Solar energy can be easily dismissed as “new” or “unreliable” during the daily grind of dairy farming; however, the potential benefits to both the environment and your business’ bottom line should be cause for consideration. “Overall, it was no inconvenience at all,” Oostdam says. “It’s a good investment, let’s put it that way.”  PD

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