There are many different ways to incorporate solar onto your farm, and Chris Lent, a sustainable agriculture specialist for the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), helped explain the options for farms in the Northeast during a recent seminar.

Solar operations on farms usually range from five to 300 kW and are used to supplement electricity use on the property. Lent focused on solar photovoltaic (PV) systems – “the production of electricity using the sun’s energy.”

Some benefits of solar include reducing a farm’s operating costs; tax and grant incentives; reduced carbon emissions; and self-sufficiency.

Some cons of solar include the upfront financial cost; needing the right space; intermittent production (if it’s nighttime or cloudy, it’s not producing energy); and the loss of power when the grid goes down.

Lent specified that “it’s important to increase the efficiency on your farm first and lower your energy needs” before switching to a solar system. Some ways to check or improve the efficiency on your farm is to look for air leaks that waste electricity, install timers for your lights, heaters and fans and take good care of the equipment you have.

It’s important to decide if you want your solar tied to the grid. For grid-tied solar, “whatever isn’t used in current time goes through a utility meter and gets fed back into the grid.” You get credit for this overflow of energy, and if your solar system isn’t creating energy at any given time, you are provided energy from the grid.

Options for on-farm solar in the Northeast

With an off-grid solar system, any energy that you are not using at the current time is kept in a battery bank. If your system isn’t making energy and you have no excess energy in your battery bank, there’s no energy to use.

With farm solar, “you have two basic choices,” Lent said. “You’re either going to be putting it on the roof or you’re going to be installing a ground mount system.”

Roof mounts are less expensive to install, don’t take up ground space, are less visible and less likely to get damaged. However, you must have a south-facing roof in order to have an efficient system, and any roof repair will be more difficult with solar panels installed.

Ground mounts are easier to get to for repairs, and they can be adjusted to point to southward. But these are also more easily damaged because they get in the way, you have to be careful of any structures that would block them from the sun and they’re more expensive to install.

What steps should you take when working toward solar?

  1. Contact a contractor. Ask them questions. How many years of experience do they have? How many installations have they done? Ask them for references. Do they have liability insurance? Do they have a contractor’s license? Will they help you with incentives?
  2. Complete a solar site survey.
  3. Get at least three quotes from companies to see your options. Compare and choose. Your quote should include the following information: components and location, warranties, incentives, scope, project schedule, payment terms, savings and payback and environmental impact.
  4. Talk to your neighbors. Although any installations will be on your property, it’s still a smart idea to be a good neighbor and listen to any concerns they may have.
  5. Once everything is hammered out, sign the contract.
  6. Schedule installation and an interconnection agreement with the utility company.

There are a wide variety of options for installing solar on your farm – it just takes some research to find what works best for your budget, space and overall production needs.

by Kelsi Devolve