solar energy panels 0213M1-1541A
SHEDDING LIGHT ON SOLAR: The cost-effectiveness of solar energy in recent years has led to an increased interest in solar production from farmers and ranchers looking to install solar arrays like this 25-kilowatt system installed in 2016 on the Jim Jenkins ranch near Callaway.

Shedding some light about solar energy on the farm

As technology has become more cost-effective, farmers and ranchers are increasingly interested in using solar power.

Among alternative energy sources, solar is undeniably on the rise. "The price of solar has come down quite a bit and there is now a lot of interest in agriculture and small businesses," F. John Hay, Nebraska Extension energy educator, told producers at a Solar Energy in Agriculture workshop in Norfolk recently. "Small scale solar is the lowest-cost renewable energy source at this time."

The National Rural Energy Laboratory ranks Nebraska 13th for solar production potential. In 2016, the Nebraska Energy Office's Dollar and Energy Savings Loan Program had made loans for 18 solar projects with production capacity at 859.8 kilowatts. Many of the most recent projects have been installed on farms and ranches and in small communities.

Producers who are considering a rural solar project should ask themselves to identify their own goals. If they are considering solar only, because it is a renewable energy source, payback time may not matter to them. If they are trying to power a remote site, solar needs to be cost-effective and efficient. If they are looking at solar as an investment in the future, payback time will be important, said Hay.

As far as pricing, Hay said that a typical 10-kilowatt solar system cost around $90,000 in 2007, but only $25,000 today. For a total installation, which would include construction, labor, grid connection, engineering, permitting, environmental studies and sales tax, the cost would be between $2.50 and 3.50 per watt of production. There are also ongoing annual costs including some maintenance, operating and insurance. "The greatest advantage to solar energy is that it is boring," Hay said. "There are no moving parts, so it just sits there and works."

Solar panels typically stand up well to hailstorms and other extreme weather events. Most solar panels will carry a 25-year warranty, but the sun will degrade the materials over time and reduce overall efficiency. Efficiency of the actual solar cells has also improved from 16% to 21% over the past 10 years, Hay said.

There are several opportunities to help fund a new solar system, including Federal Business Energy Investment Tax Credits and potential grants like the Rural Energy for America Program through USDA. If you are researching solar systems for the first time, here are solar terms and definitions you will need to know:

• Array. Interconnected system of solar panel modules installed together in a rack or series of racks that function as a single electricity-producing unit.

• Module. An assembly of solar cells and parts like interconnections, terminals and diodes to generate direct current (DC) power from solar radiation. Modules are commonly called solar panels.

• Solar photovoltaic cell, or PV. Silicon crystals that make up solar panels, using unique properties of semiconductors to directly convert solar radiation into electricity.

• Silicon. A semimetallic chemical element that makes excellent semiconductor material for solar modules and systems.

• Inverter. Device that converts DC power to clean, utility-grade or alternating current (AC) power that can be consumed on site or exported into the utility electric grid.

• Electric grid. This is the power company's network of conductors, substations and equipment that distributes electricity from a central generation point to consumers. For small solar systems tied to the electric grid, excess power production goes into the grid. But when extra power is needed at the site, electricity can also be drawn off the grid. In this case, the grid is used as a "storage" facility for the solar power.

• Battery. For systems that are "off-grid" or not tied into the overall electrical grid, batteries can be utilized to store excess power production for use at a later time.

• Net metering. This is a metering arrangement where excess power produced by a solar system is exported to the utility's grid and subtracted from the amount of energy imported at that site from the grid, offsetting energy at a retail rate. Excess beyond what is used in a billing period is credited back to your bill at an agreed upon rate, typically less than retail rate.

You can learn more about the potential for solar systems in your farm and ranch by contacting Hay at [email protected]. Solar energy resources are also available online from Nebraska Public Power District, Omaha Public Power District and Lincoln Electric System, or at the Nebraska Energy Office website at neo.ne.gov.

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