Sun catchers

2014-07-31T08:00:00Z Sun catchersBy Phyllis Coulter, Illinois Farmer Today Illinois Farmer Today

PARKERSBURG — Tim Ridgely needed some serious convincing that installing solar panels on his farm would be worth the time, cost and effort. He got it.

His nephew, Austin Ridgely, installed solar panels at his nearby house here in 2011 and was pleased with the results.

“I did it to save money,” explains Austin, who is a land surveyor, and is a partner in an engineering firm. The 48 solar panels installed on Austin’s property run his house.

“I always was interested in solar energy, and the price was cheap enough,” he says. Now, his light bills are about $16 a month.

He encouraged Tim the timing was right with federal tax credits, state incentives and USDA grants available to help with the initial start up costs to power his Southeast Illinois farm with solar energy.

Tim grows corn, soybeans and wheat on about 2,700 acres in Richland County. His son, Trevor, raises beef cattle.

“I had to argue with Tim and Trevor,” Austin recalls.

Farmers are always trying to fix their input costs, so it seemed like a natural fit, Austin adds.

Tim grins and agrees. He says at age 70, he was harder to convince to make an investment for the future, but he is glad he did.

They estimate the solar system on Tim’s farm will pay for itself in about four years.

Tim paid about the same for 72 panels in 2011 as what Austin spent on 48 only one year earlier due to price declines. Austin estimates it will take about 10 years for payback at his home for the smaller system.

The solar panels on Tim’s farm were installed in two phases. The first 72 panels would have cost $49,000 without the 30-percent federal tax credit and the 25-percent renewable energy rebate from the state.

With that help, the panels cost about $24,000 out of pocket.

Tim’s second phase with 90 solar panels cost about the same as the first 72 panels. However, in addition to the federal tax credit, and state incentive, he received a USDA Rural Energy for America Program grant that could not exceed 25 percent of the project.

“His out-of-pocket cost for the second phase was $13,300,” Austin notes.

Tim also saved money by putting up the system with the help of his family.

“If I had to hire a solar-panel company to put it up, it would have cost 10 to 15 percent more,” he notes.

Now, Tim’s entire farm runs on the system.

Through Illinois’ net metering law, the excess energy from Tim’s panels goes to the grid, and he receives a net credit from his electric utility.

All of the Ridgelys’ solar panels are ground-mounted, which makes them more efficient. In the city, solar panels sometimes must be mounted on buildings because of limited ground space.

The panels are tempered glass and can withstand softball-sized hail. Still, Tim has insured them because he knows odd things can happen.

An F-16 jet crashed in a field near his farm in July 2001 while it was doing Air National Guard maneuvers. The pilot ejected safely.

Tim has framed news clippings on his office wall only a few feet from the computer he uses to monitor his solar panels.

The software program allows Tim and Austin to monitor how many kilowatts each panel produces and if any panels are not working well.

So, why aren’t more farmers choosing solar energy?

“I don’t think people realize how cheap it has gotten,” Austin says.

However, he notes there is still a sizable upfront cost for installation that not everyone can afford.

Also, there are financial benefits in some states, that aren’t available in Illinois.

For example, another possible revenue stream for people such as Tim producing solar energy is Solar Renewal Energy Credits (SREC). One credit is awarded for every 1,000 kilowatts produced.

“There’s a market in some states for them,” Austin says.

Other states pay about $500 a credit, but not in Illinois even though the state has set aside $30 million to pay for the credits, he notes.

Tim would get five or six credits a month, so it would be a good source of extra income, if Illinois paid for the SRECs like other states, Austin explains.

“It would be the syrup on the ice cream,” Tim says.

Copyright 2014 Illinois Farmer Today. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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