Installing Solar Arrays Becomes More Attractive for Farmers

ISU Extension and Outreach publications discuss viability of on-farm solar generation

February 7, 2017, 1:34 pm | Tom Miller, Jay Harmon, Mark Hanna

Solar ArraysAMES, Iowa – The costs associated with installing solar arrays have dropped over the last several years, making them much more cost effective to install on a farm or acreage. As they become more affordable, these solar arrays are becoming a viable source of energy for farmers, especially farmers who have large barns to ventilate in the summer or fans on grain bins.

“Not many people realize this, but Iowa is in the top third of states in terms of solar potential,” said Mark Hanna, agricultural engineering specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. “The cost per watt for generating electricity has been dropping steadily, down to about $3 per watt as opposed to $10-15 per watt several years ago. Both federal and state tax credits are also making the use of solar energy more attractive.”

The usage and installation of solar arrays, as well as economic considerations to take into account, are discussed in a new Iowa State University Extension and Outreach publication. The publication, titled “Farm Energy: Solar photovoltaic energy for agricultural operations” (PM 2089Y) is available through the Extension Store. It was written by ISU Extension and Outreach’s Mark Hanna, agricultural engineering specialist; Jay Harmon, professor and extension livestock housing specialist; and Tom Miller, extension swine specialist.

A companion publication, “Farm Energy: Case Studies – Adding solar electrical generation to a farm with grain drying and electrical heating” (PM 3063F), is also available. This publication focuses on the process and research Miller employed before installing solar panels on his farm.

“Everyone’s situation is different,” Miller said. “Solar power has been beneficial to my operation and has outperformed the expectations we had, as well as the manufacturer’s projections. It is definitely something farmers should explore.”

One of the most attractive parts of installing a solar array is the ability to not only provide electricity for that farm, but to bank excess solar energy for credit with the electric company at the end of the month.

“A key to exploring how solar energy may work for you is to interact with your local utility provider to find out the different possibilities for payment and usage,” Hanna said.

While turning the solar array into a revenue source is ideal, there are also significant initial expenses to consider.

“Think about if there is room for it on the farm and what your current electrical demand is,” Hanna said. “If starting to explore installing a solar array with a contractor, pay special attention to cost per generated watt. For individual installations on property or farm, that cost is likely to be $3-4 per watt. The larger the array the more cost efficient it is, but farmers have to make sure installing the array makes sense for their operation first.”

Before a farmer can decide whether to add a solar array or not, they must first understand how much energy they are using, how much energy can be produced from the system they have in mind, and if that production will ultimately provide a cost benefit. The publication provides step-by-step instructions for evaluating potential energy generation. This will allow the reader to take the first steps in determining if solar energy may be the right decision for their operation.

“When I started to study if a solar array was right for my farm there weren’t that many around and it was a challenge to find all the rules and regulations that govern them,” Miller said. “I would encourage people interested in solar energy to do their research. Get educated and know all the ins and outs before the process starts.”

Photo Credit: Iowa Energy Center

About the Authors: 

Mark Hanna

Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering