The long fall ended with a storm on November 18th that bowed the bushes over under the snow weight and sent the farm into power outage from noon until ten the next day. Somehow, on this kind of farm, we are never quite ready for the end of season even though we know we are pushing it. Always there are two or three things that really should be done first and so it goes. So the storm interrupted Josh and Cindy's first wintertime convention in the Twin Cities, making them late as they pushed to keep animals reasonably warm and watered by use of the stand by generator.
So we have a few things yet to do. Today the cattle went into winter lots and the hay feeding rings until we can get the last of the bedding bales home next week, allowing them access to what they can find of the crop residues. Meanwhile pigs are being weaned today and moved out from farrowing so that can be cleaned for the next batch of sows. Tomorrow we must turn off the pasture water at the curb stops. And, we get to throw the switch turning on the array of solar panels, at long last. We eagerly look forward to it!
Around here, you could often be tired, but never bored! We wish you all a Merry Christmas and much good time with family and friends!
Tuesday, November 1, 2016
Our new solar panels are up. They stand along the farm’s driveway oriented south at the edge of the pastures. The process to the present point with the project has been long and convoluted so it is good to see them standing there. We started thinking about solar four or five years ago because we were not comfortable with the way the freezers we use in our business had driven our electric bills up. This was because of the cost in dollars, but also the apparent contradiction in goals. We claim in our meats sales that our animals are raised differently, that the kind of farming that produces them, heavy on pastures and hay while minimizing the use of row crops makes possible the kind of long rotations in land use that are kind to the environment, saving on fertilizers and crop chemicals and enabling us to avoid use of GMO’s. Our crops are indeed certified organic, which is a contrast to our heavy use of electricity to run freezers for our meat sales.
The original thought was to participate in our state’s net metering law under which our power cooperative would buy the power produced by the panels and sell us back all the power needed for the freezers including whenever the panels were not producing-nighttime-or producing at a reduced rate in the winter. We were to be able to buy the power at our regular rate and sell our power back to the coop at nearly the same retail rate. However, before we could get the panels up, the legislature here changed the net metering law at the request of the coops, which didn’t think they should be required to provide what is essentially stand by electricity at a rate that allowed them little or nothing in the way of income to cover maintenance costs on their transformers, lines and poles. Now, the state decided, the power suppliers would have latitude in the amount of power they would buy back, what they would pay for it and a standard monthly service charge as well. The only requirement is that these charges and policies be “reasonable”. As you can imagine, this resulted in an immediate pile up of complaints to the state’s Public Utility Commission, which had been appointed referee. This happened in 2014, when we had been awarded the USDA grant to cover part of the cost, but had not yet signed the contract with the builder. We put the project in neutral and spent a year studying our options and rethinking the entire idea.
We knew from the beginning that one of the things we wanted to consider was taking that entire system off line. After all, the freezers draw the most power during the daytime in the summer, when temperatures are the highest and panels produce the most. We knew from experience during several day and day and a half long weather caused power blackouts that the freezers, which we keep at about ten degrees below zero, will hold the cold for overnight without more than a three or four degree rise in temperature. And though our local power coop is well managed and does a good job of maintaining and improving its infrastructure, it does depend upon western coal as its fuel and low interest loans from the government to keep its balance sheet healthy. And the infrastructure that surrounds both us and the power coop, the national electrical grid, is being allowed to run down, resembling nothing so much as a diversified farm where the farmer, nearing retirement, has no heirs and sees no use in putting money into something he will not live to use, and so does not bother to fix the barn roof. Why a country with a large and productive economy should act that way is a puzzle I have not been able to figure out, but there it is.
After long and intense negotiations with the power coop, and long careful study of what the new approach would do to our projected payback time on the panels-increase it from eight years to eleven basically, given the best the coop would offer-we cautiously went ahead. We reasoned that we had the Public Utility Commission to fall back on, reluctant as we were to involve a government referee in a dispute with a coop run essentially, by friends and neighbors. We will see. We hope for the best.
Why didn’t we just take the plunge to offline? Because the daily inventory in the freezers generally exceeds five thousand dollars at any given time, and because we are far from figuring out the details of the standby. Time to do that and gain experience with the actual production of the panels was why we wanted to go the net metering route in the first place.
There are questions about this. How much will the panels produce? What about the equipment required to make sure that the freezers are not allowed to run when the panels are not producing enough to avoid low voltage to the motors? What else beside night will cause the panels to produce at a greatly reduced rate? What will be the effect of a series of cloudy days in summer? And then, how good are battery standbys, or would we be better served with a simple diesel standby generator?
These questions are some of the host of issues that will come up as we consider producing the power we need in other ways than coal and in a more decentralized fashion. It seems evident here that decentralization is crucial, given the long term inability of the US government to deal with simple infrastructure improvements and maintenance. But what is also evident is that farms, and especially diversified ones, are in a unique position to start taking up some of these problems and learning how to use some of the new tools to solve long standing issues. And it may be just my opinion, but I think rural power coops could benefit here as well, thinking about ways to form closer and more beneficial relationships with their own customers/owners. Here in the Midwest for instance, the power coops are thinking about large solar installations to produce their own solar energy and thus achieve better control over when they need to buy natural gas produced power to supplement the solar. Good and ongoing communication with their own customers with solar installations could result in similar control of the power supply for the coops plus providing opportunity for hundreds of farms like ours to produce additional income while controlling our own costs.
Farms are full of opportunities. The major problem with alternative energy in any form is what to do with the slack power production times. Farms, because they are under such close and personal management, might be able to take the lead in distributing the load, matching it more closely with available power at any given time. Suppose, for instance, that we install solar panels to supply the power needed to pump the water from our central water well. We use a lot of water, as does any livestock farm. We could oversize the capacity of the solar installation enough that we could rely on it to produce in twelve hours the power needed for twenty four. Then, if we routed the water from the well into a water tower, such as all small towns use, we could provide livestock and household water when the sun is not shining. With just a little ingenuity, we should be able to attach a small turbine that would use the falling water-from the tower-to generate a certain amount of power for another use, ventilating a barn, for instance, or heating a piglet nursery. Essentially what this system would do would be to save the power generated from the sun to use at night, while also encouraging thought about reducing load for night times.
This solar effort promises to be an adventure! One step at a time.