CHATFIELD — On Oct. 3, Dennis Hamm activated the newly installed system of solar panels atop the pole shed on his rural Chatfield farm, joining a growing number of farmers who incorporate solar technology.
Thanks to increased awareness, falling prices, tax incentives and grant programs, solar energy is on the rise in rural Minnesota.
Hamm and his father run a farm of roughly 650 acres where they raise around 130 head of cattle and also deal with corn, soybeans, oats, and hay. His solar installation consists of 150 solar panels and cost just over $100,000 to install. His system is connected to the power grid and, through net-metering, sells the excess power it generates back to the power company.
"It makes me feel good that I can produce my own power, plus have a little extra to go back on the grid," he said, adding that he's proud to have only bought equipment manufactured in the United States.
Hamm has long had an interest in solar energy, and in March, he talked with Solar Connections, a Rochester-based solar installation company, at the Agri News Farm Show in Rochester.
Hamm knew of some neighbors with solar installations, and he had just erected a pole shed on his farm, which he realized could house solar panels. In May, he decided to move ahead with the project. Solar Connections installed it over the summer, and in early October, his farm was producing more than enough energy to power itself.
More and more farmers are pursuing projects like Hamm's.
"We've seen increased applications and an increase in projects we've been able to assist as far as the renewable energy side," said Ron Omman, environmental and energy coordinator in charge of all Rural Energy for America (REAP) projects throughout the state,
This year, REAP has helped 9 solar projects, up from just two in 2012.
REAP was introduced in the 2003 Farm Bill. Its goal is to provide financial assistance to farmers who wish to pursue energy efficiency or renewable energy projects on their farms by reimbursing them for up to 25 percent of the installation costs on approved projects.
In its ten years, it has helped out with over 600 projects in the state of Minnesota, including Hamm's.
"In general I would say, first of all, that Minnesota is a great place for solar energy," said Joel Haskard, co-director of the University of Minnesota's Clean Energy Resource Teams, "There's been some recent legislation passed this last year that is even making solar more attractive in some areas, and, also, the prices of solar keep going down and there are more and more qualified installers, as well. So what we're seeing on the landscape, in particular with farms, we're seeing a lot more solar photovoltaic (solar PV) systems on farms."
Haskard says there are roughly 1500 solar PV projects and 15 megawatts of solar in Minnesota. In 2012, Minnesota installed 4 megawatts of solar electric capacity, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Farmers are motivated for reasons like energy independence or increasing their property value, Haskard said. He stressed that reducing energy use is the first step for anyone looking to get into renewable energy.
Hamm estimates that it will take around 5 years for the installation to pay for itself, if he uses the tax credits available. Without tax incentives, the panels could pay for themselves in about ten years.
"It depends on how you figure all your tax things into it," he says, "I'm hoping within five to six years, it's basically paid for itself."
Hamm said that he uses only about 40 percent of the power his panels generate. He expects his usage to increase to about 50 percent during winter.
"The rest of it goes back on the grid and people's co-op buys the rest of it," he said. "At this point the summer is when I produce the most, and that's when everybody's running their air conditioners the most and need the extra. I feel that it works out rather well, and I hope the power company feels the same."