By Jennifer Showalter
It comes up every morning… why not put it to work?
We have been granted the gift of the sun coming up each and every morning, so it only makes sense to put it to work. From energizing fence chargers, automatic gate openers, water pumps, large scale irrigation systems, to overall household and barn electrical needs, solar power has the capability of running it all.
HOW SOLAR POWER WORKS
Solar power is the conversion of sunlight into electricity by directly using photovoltaic (PV) cells, also known as solar cells, or indirectly using concentrated solar power (CSP). CSP systems force large areas of sunlight into small beams by way of lenses or mirrors and tracking sys tems. Solar power can be used to energize both direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC) systems. AC is the standard form of electricity for anything that plugs into utility power. This is the type of power used in homes and barns. DC solar power is less expensive than AC solar power, but cannot power standard AC appliances. Off-grid solar power systems store DC electricity in batteries, which can be used as needed or converted to AC power by way of an inverter.
Solar power systems can operate solely on their own with a back-up battery or other power source, or they can be connected to the grid. Grid connected systems feed excess produced electricity back to the grid and eliminate the expense of electricity storage devices like batteries. Power providers in most states turn back electricity meters as power is fed back into the grid. If more electricity is used than what is produced in a given month, the customer only pays the power provider the difference. Additional equipment, regulations, insurance, and safety guidelines go along with grid connected systems, depending on location. “Solar panels when active are like utility electricity lines, so it is important to follow the guidelines,” says Seth Pepper with Tucson-based Agriculture Energies. “Even though they are silent, they still pack punch,”
Solar panels are usually placed facing the equator so they capture the maximum amount of sunshine. They may need some adjustment throughout the year depending on the tilt of the earth. Peak panel output is typically from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fog, snow, rain, ice, bird droppings, and dust can affect the performance of the panels and must be cleared or accounted for in the way of a backup storage battery, generator, water storage tank, or an alternate form of power. Solar panels are low-to-no maintenance, but these limitations cannot be ignored.
OVERCOMING INITIAL COSTS
Like with most purchases on a ranch, solar powered devices and systems have some overhead costs that must be considered. Pepper explains, “The challenge for solar is that it is a cash purchase. The cost is all upfront, but the cost is justified if you consider that solar panels have a 25 year warranty and are expected to last at least 50 years. Now, if in the beginning it takes a few years to pay it off, wouldn’t you say the long-term benefits of ‘free energy’ outweigh the initial costs?”
There is assistance to help with acquiring solar power, but it takes some time to get it. A good starting point is to visit your local NRCS office. “Upwards of 70% of the purchase price can be reduced from tax incentives, but you have to be able to use those tax benefits,” Pepper continues. “Farm banks are a great resource for low interest loans to ranchers, and there are grants available through the USDA, specifically the REAP program. Our experience is that this approach will take a lot of patience – and if you can do these projects without waiting, why wait. However, if you need assistance, the grant programs can make a lot of sense.”
The economics behind going solar are site specific and therefore each rancher has to consider his or her own situation. Pepper finds that solar power is the most attractive when compared to other sources of energy for off-grid operations. He adds, “An area we see the most advantage in solar power is the growing increase of ranchers taking on growing their own livestock feed in order to stabilize their costs. Pumping the water to these large fields can eventually be pumped for free when the system is paid off. There is some real stability for the rancher in this. A lot of ranchers we run into seem to think little watering livestock tanks are all they can run off of solar and do not know that solar can feed large irrigation systems.” Joe Lines with SunPumps in Safford, AZ estimates, “Usually the payback on most off-grid solar pumping systems is two to three years in the USA.”
With there being a wide array of both off-grid and on-grid solar systems, WR thought it would be good to highlight a few companies and products that might be of some help to our readers. This is what we found:
With solar pumping systems ranging from 1/8 HP to 100 HP, SunPumps offers a comprehensive line of pumps.
The energy from the PV panels of SunPumps systems generates DC power which in turn is used to power DC motors that pump water from a source. The PV panels also create enough power to move entire irrigation systems over the ground. The solar panels generate maximum power in full sun conditions when large quantities of water are typically needed, but SunPumps still encourages customers to store water as a reserve if possible. ww.sunpumps.com
Here’s a company that will walk beef producers through the entire process of going solar, from project analysis, engineering, financial procurement and follow-up maintenance. The Agriculture Energies team works together to design a system that maximizes the solar system energy production at the lowest possible cost for the best return on the investment to the system owner. Agriculture Energies, in business since 1970, prides itself in developing and installing systems that are as large as 500 horsepower and have been in the field working for over a decade without any downtime failure. www.agriculturesolar.com
The Reliant solar pump system from Artisan Pumps supplies fresh water for rural homes, farms and ranches. The simple and sturdy pump is ideal for gardens, stock watering, irrigation, and filling and maintaining ponds. As a replacement for windmill-powered pumps, the Reliant offers reliability, low cost of ownership and a far lower profile. The ¾-hp motor is driven by solar or low-amp grid-tie electric power. The pump can run dry without damage, perfect for pasture situations where flow may not be checked every day. Reliant offers two choices: Model 101 pumps to 400 feet at constant flow rates. Model 102 delivers flows of 2.7 gallons a minute, up to 3,880 gallons a day. www.artisanpumpco.com