“Farmers have been using solar energy as long as there have been farmers,” said ag professor Daniel Ciolkosz. Referencing a photo of corn that he took near State College, PA, he said, “These are the original solar collectors.” Solar panels, which he said are cropping up from place to place, are solar photovoltaics.

Are solar photovoltaics something that every farmer should be considering? Yes! Ciolkosz maintains that “when we look at the amount of solar photovoltaics that have been installed in the United States over the last 10 years or so, there’s been a steady increase from year to year.” But what are the steps involved in such an installation?

“It’s a system that involves utilizing solar panels to absorb sunlight and transform it into direct current electrical energy,” Ciolkosz explained. “That direct current needs to be converted into alternating current, which is what we typically use; an inverter does that and makes it usable for most systems. That electricity is then supplied to the farm at the breaker box panel to be used for whatever you need it for.”

There is one other component that is critical, and that is a connection to the grid. It’s possible to set up photovoltaics and not be connected to the grid, but it’s more complex and expensive, so most people like to connect to the grid (in part because in Pennsylvania there is something called “net metering”). By law, that is required by all the major utility companies. If you have excess solar energy, more than you’re using at that moment, that’s solar “upstream,” which flows onto the electrical grid; it also causes the electrical meter to run backwards. In effect, the grid is serving as a battery of sorts which stores the energy you produce for later use – for which the farmer gets full credit.

Everything’s solar these days – or is it?

Dr. Daniel Ciolkosz, associate professor of agricultural and bioengineering. Photo by Stephen Wagner

“It does pay off in the long run, but you have to take into account all potential benefits from the system. Your reduced electricity charges is a big one. A federal tax credit is a huge part of the overall economics. Depreciation tax benefits, as well, from what’s admittedly a big-ticket item to add to your farm. It’s alternative energy credit so you basically get to sell the renewability of the electricity you created to somebody who wants to take credit for it,” said Ciolkosz.

Does it pay off quickly? Ciolkosz said “generally, no.” Electricity rates are going up pretty impressively, he said. The net cost is about $22,200, but what do you get back? “These things last for 30, maybe 40 years,” he explained. “On an annual basis your reduced electricity bill might be somewhere around $1,500. Future prices are always uncertain.” An alternative energy credit would be another $300 to $400, depending on what the market is like. There’s also a depreciation tax benefit of about $800 to $900 for the first five to seven years, depending on how you do your taxes. One of the simplest ways to look at it is to take the total installed cost and divide that by the annual income you expect from it. You’ll get a number that’s called “the simple payback.” It takes about nine years before the money you put in comes back to you.

Assuming you want to do this, what are the steps to follow? Select a configuration. Select the size. Talk to your local government and your electricity supplier. Select an installer. Pay for it. Reap the benefits for the next 30 years.

How big should it be? As big as you can afford? As big as you have space for? Big enough to zero out your annual usage? Or as big as your electrical system allows? Choosing an installer is an actual process. “There’s a lot of people out there who would be happy to take your money to put up solar panels for you,” Ciolkosz said. But if you prefer to do it yourself, go ahead. It isn’t difficult if you know how to do it. Roof damage is a common “first-timer” mistake. Failing to meet the electrical code is another common issue. Are you comfortable with the risks associated with working on roofs and electricity? Also, are you comfortable with dealing with your electricity supplier and the paperwork that’s required?

If your situation is a good fit for solar, “my advice is go out and get some quotes. Taking into account an increase in electricity prices makes today a good time to think about it,” Ciolkosz advised. “If your situation is not a good fit for solar photovoltaics, don’t fret. There are other ways to make your energy use more renewable or sustainable. And there are other ways to invest and get a return on that investment.”

by Stephen Wagner