CSU’s Rural Energy Center assists with solar energy decisions
January 22, 2018
Since 2011, the Rural Energy Center has been on a mission to facilitate sustainable energy decisions in rural Colorado. Cary Werner, energy specialist for Colorado State University Extension at REC, noted several practical applications.
For example, a farmer contemplating solar to offset electricity used in irrigation can learn from REC the financial costs and benefits of such an investment. The center has helped rural towns understand various funding and financing options for investments such as electric vehicle charging stations and LED lighting. This important information can prioritize efforts and make energy decisions easier.
Originally a partnership between the College of Engineering and CSU Extension, REC was called the Center for Agricultural Energy. The name changed in 2014 to better reflect opportunities to make a difference in rural Colorado, which includes but goes beyond agriculture into local governments and other rural stakeholders, Werner said.
He said that REC is a small shop, which he runs with assistance from a few grad students.
"But what makes the center unique," he said, "is that, as an Extension specialist, I can partner with Extension agents in counties throughout the state to find the best opportunities for impact with our work. So, we have a lot of indirect support."
A U.S. Department of Agriculture grant allows REC to offer up to 30 free economic feasibility assessments for solar electric systems on feedlots and diversified farms with livestock. This assists those producers to size solar arrays and understand benefits and funding opportunities to offset electricity usage from the grid.
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First, participants provide basic information and utility bills. After REC conducts an in-depth analysis, a report is reviewed with the customer. Those desiring to move forward with a project receive a site visit, help with a grant application and a contractor recommendation.
"We just completed a very similar project working with farmers with center-pivot sprinklers," Werner said. "We learned a lot and helped people make good decisions about whether or not to invest."
Cost savings of solar versus traditional energy sources depends on factors such as current electricity rates, local utility policies and year-round/seasonal usage.
If the going rate is 10 cents or higher for every kilowatt-hour of electricity, and usage is fairly even year-round, a 5 to 10 percent return on solar investment is possible — as good or better than the stock market, Werner said.
Ag producers with enough tax "appetite" to take advantage of the 30 percent federal tax credit and accelerated depreciation will fare far better than those without it.
Holyoke Colo., farmers/ranchers Randy and Darlene Weis had REC do an assessment for their operation in early 2016. The initial process took only about a month, Randy said. But once REC had made their recommendations, a couple technical glitches delayed solar installation.
For safety's sake, rural electric provider Highline Electric Association wisely required the panels tie in at the box for easy accessibility in the event of an emergency. A few other hiccups occurred but finally, in January 2017, the initial panels went up followed by the rest in March/April. By June 2017, solar was providing power.
Weis, who combines his 1,900 acres with his mother Darlene's 3,800, said that solar is currently providing 19 percent of irrigation well usage, which was how it was designed based on investment capital and alloted space.
Besides energy for the irrigation well, Weis had six additional solar panels installed for his vehicle storage Quonset's needs. Weis said one negative of solar power is that it is non-functional on cloudy days. However, on the positive side, when the Weis's big well is inactive, they can sell energy from solar back to HEA.
Weis doesn't know of anyone else in his area who implements any solar. However, he's glad he had REC do a feasibility assessment that helped him make a decision to install their property's solar array (even though payback periods can take 13 to 20 years on irrigated farms with center pivots).
Weis matter-of-factly said, "I figured if we don't try it, we'll never know."
Besides that practical outlook, he noted that HEA had offered a rebate on solar that was about to expire. His panels were installed just under the wire.
Werner talked about an expired grant that had funded 30 economic feasibility solar and wind assessments for farms with center pivot sprinklers. He said in some ways, it was a good thing the grant is not currently available because in that project REC learned it's difficult to make the financial case for solar on irrigated farms if energy is only required half a year.
"Since we learned that lesson we were able to successfully reapply for a grant to serve livestock operations that tend to use energy throughout the year, which is a win for us and a wiser use of funds for the taxpayer supporting these grants," he said.
Werner added that for livestock operations wanting to move forward with a solar project, the USDA offers 25 percent grants, and the Colorado Department of Agriculture has recently also opened up its energy program to support these projects.
But how might the federal government's proposed cuts in many programs effect REC's goals?
Federal programs are a function of both the executive and legislative (congress) branches, Werner said. He said that rural energy programs have provided benefits across the political spectrum; the wind industry in particular has spurred jobs, economic development and a new tax base in the rural counties of Colorado, the Midwest and other regions.
In addition, the solar industry is the fastest-growing employer in the United States, Werner said. He thinks there is widespread support across much of the country and in congress for the alternative energy source. Additionally, there's a strong movement by local governments toward renewable energy.
"We are preparing a Local Government Energy Academy to help local Colorado governments understand options for energy efficiency and renewable energy, regardless of their motivations," Werner said. "We are optimistic that we will continue to have support and interest in both the short-term and long-term."
REC will help navigate grant applications for any of their 30 participants who want to install solar. To apply for REC's economic feasibility assessment for solar at feedlots or diversified farms with animal agriculture, go to http://rec.colostate.edu/fase. ❖