Friday, May 20, 2016

Solar Power Boom

Treasure Valley Farms Explore Solar Power

Melba—Kerry Smith of Melba has a quirk and she doesn't care who knows about it. She can’t wait to open her power bill each month.

Smith and a few hundred other Idaho farmers have gone solar. She loves to watch her power meter run backward, she admits its an obsession.

“I come out and watch my power meter run backward, Any time I turn something on in the house I run out and check it to see if its still running backward,” said Smith.

She’s checking whats known as a net meter and its capable of spinning backward and building up energy credits on the grid when solar conditions peak, creating more power than needed. Auric Solar of Boise recently installed the system and Smith Farm immediately started reaping the benefits.

“This is a 69 panel system and it produces almost 19 kilowatts of energy on a sunny day and its enough to run all the farm and most of the home here,” said Kevin Holmes of Auric Solar.

The interest in solar power across the nation is adding up according to the United States Department of Agriculture. On-line solar power systems have cut carbon pollution by nearly 300 million metric tons this year alone, thats like taking 60 million cars off the road. In 2015 farms, homes and businesses cut nearly $45 billion off power bills.

“I try and keep that meter running backward as much as I can,” said Smith. “I guess the whole point is to become more efficient so we don't have to depend on everyone else.” Smith says she looked into alternative power sources about 3 years ago. “I looked into windmills and hydro because we have running water down on our other place, but where we’re located, solar was the best bet because its more reliable.”

Smith found a firm called Auric Solar through the Better Business Bureau. Auric Solar was founded in Utah and is one of the fastest growing solar companies in Utah and Idaho.

“We’re all about educating clients about solar, once we explain how people buy electricity now and how thats changing, it becomes a no brainer,” said Holmes.  “We have cheap electricity here in Idaho, but not for long, power bills are going up 7-15-percent per year.” 

The system Auric Solar installed on Smith Farm is warrantied for 25 years and will last 50-60 years. Holmes says in 15 years power rates will triple and he thinks the Smiths will pay the system off  in just a few years. “When people can lock in their energy costs, it adds up,” added Holmes. 

Kerry Smith says their power bill, both home and farm was cut in half the first month of service.
“It’s a way of saving money, I’d recommend it, in fact my brother is putting a system in.”

Until a few years ago, solar power was too expensive for average Idahoans, because very few had an extra $25,000 to spend on solar panels. But times have changed and the cost of using solar power have dropped. Innovative service agreements and financing now allow people to pay for the power that their rooftop panels produce each month, rather than having to pay upfront for an entire system. Solar power has arrived and its as easy as signing up for cable TV.
Just as important, “net metering” is the industry standard that drives the thriving rooftop industry. Metering gives solar customers credit for all the extra electricity they send back to the grid. California enacted net metering policy 20 years ago and now more than 40 states including Idaho have adopted the metering policies.

Crews can easily and quickly install panels on rooftops or on ground mounts. Once in place, Auric Solar works with  Idaho Power and runs the solar panels into the home’s traditional electrical system. 

Smith says her potential savings over the next six years will pay for the solar setup with no added expense for maintenance. “It has a 25 year guarantee and Auric Solar maintains it and overall I think it’s a good deal.” 

Auric Solar also helps clients work their way through grant applications and affordable finance programs offered through the US Department of Agriculture.

“The USDA is investing $68-million dollars in 540 in solar energy projects this year,” said US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak. He says funding includes loan guarantees and grants for solar energy.

“These funds are being provided through the Rural Energy for America program and what they do is allow farmers and small businesses in rural communities in this country to reduce their cost of energy and they do it by helping build small scale energy renewable energy projects as well as energy efficiency projects,” said Vilsak.

“We have nearly 9-thousand renewable energy projects that the Department has funded since I took this job as Secretary,” added Vilsak. “We are helping to save or create 9.2-billion kilowatt hours of power, thats enough power to take care of 800-thousands homes across the US.”

“For us, the solar panels runs the pump in our well, it waters the cattle and supplies all the power to the house, barn and shop on our 200 acre farm. The panels also powers the welders and coolers we keep out in the shop,” said Smith.

It used to get really expensive in the winter for the Smiths, and the colder it got the more they paid, thats why they went solar.

“In the winter you either chop ice in the water troughs or you heat the tanks. Thats a fixed expense because they need water and you can’t imagine how expensive just watering cattle can be all day, every day. Everything is geared around electricity especially computers, it all adds up and getting more expensive. If we generate our own we have control over that expense and better yet, someone else can buy what we don't use. We can take care of ourselves and we can help someone else,” said Smith.

Smith adds that farmers don't have much income during the winter months, they’re on a fixed budget and says any expense they can cut in half helps them get through the winter months. “We cut our power bill in half and we can depend on that,” she says.

Some farms have taken solar power a step further by actually dedicating acreage to panels and instead of crops and they’re harvesting solar power and leasing the land all year long.

In North Carolina farmer Dawson Singletary saw where he could make more money off a solar crop so he leased his 34-acre farm to a solar power company, he told Bloomberg news that there’s not a single crop that could generate the income that the solar farm produced.

According to Bloomberg, the Strata Solar company is able to produce enough energy from the 21,600 panels installed on Singletary’s farm to power more than 5,000 homes.

As the prices of crops have dropped the past few years, solar companies have offered attractive lease agreements. The going rate ranges from $300 to $700 an acre per year, according to the NC Sustainable Energy Association.

That hasn’t happened yet in Idaho but with current market prices that day could come soon according Auric Solar.  Idaho is an attractive solar market because the Gem State has well over 300 sunny days a year and thats literally money in the bank.

Auric Solar says harnessing sun power achieves energy independence and better yet its local, its clean and lessens U.S. dependence on foreign oil. They say Idahoans are finally seeing the first verifiable wave in sustainable home-grown energy. 

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