You could say Hunt Farm, in Orange, Mass., is all-in when it comes to solar energy. Solar panels power the farm’s milking parlor, milk cooling, lights and ventilation along with farm homes and employee housing.
And, for good measure, Hunt Farm solar panels provide power to a local restaurant and bar, and even nearby city infrastructure. Coming soon is a seven-acre, 1.4 megawatt system that will be used in a community solar project to power some 500 homes. And on the drawing board is another 2 megawatt system that could power another 800 homes.
It all kind of started by accident, says George Hunt, Jr., who milks 120 cows and farms 500 acres with his son, Jim. The farm is located in north central Massachusetts about 10 miles south of the New Hampshire border.
“About seven or eight years ago, when my dad (George, Sr., now 81) was still involved, we needed a new roof on our freestall barn that would have cost us $70,000 to $80,000,” says George, Jr. “A solar company approached us and said they would put the roof on the barn for free if we mounted solar panels on the roof.”
While it took a few years to finalize the agreement, the system has been in place five years this fall. The panels, on the 52’ x 212’ barn, produce 55 kW of energy. It covers about 90% of the south-facing slope of the roof, and provides enough electricity nine months of the year to power the parlor, milk cooling and lights on the dairy and George, Sr.’s house on the farm.
“We’re on a net metering program, so some months we’re putting power onto the grid, and some months we’re pulling it out,” he says.
“Last year, we added 23 ventilation fans to the barn, so our energy usage has gone up,” George, Jr. says. “But the solar panels still save $1,200 to $1,500 per month in spring, summer and fall.” In December, January and February, when the sun angle is low and clouds often dominate the winter sky, solar power generation is about half that of summer months. During these months, power bills will range from $600 to $800 per month.
The Hunts also have a 145 kW system that powers a 100-seat restaurant and 18-stool bar they own down the road from the dairy farm. And they have a small 15 kW system that powers a campground, George, Jr.s’ house and housing for their Hispanic workers.
But they’ve also become involved in two much larger projects. The first is a 12-acre, 3.3 megawatt system. This system provides power to nearby Lowell, Mass., for its schools and sewage treatment plant.
Another seven acre, 1.4 megawatt system will go on-line in an Orange, Mass. industrial park yet this fall as part of a community solar project to power homes and apartment buildings. Another 2 megawatt system is also on the drawing board.
Much of the financing for these projects is done through solar energy companies. The companies typically claim the 30% federal tax credit, sell the power into the grid, and provide the Hunts with a cash payment. “There are no dollars invested on our part in some of these projects, and it provides a positive cash flow. It’s been a real help,” says George, Jr. Just this year, he estimates it’s helped them avoid a $100,000 operating loan they would have needed on the farm because of below break-even milk prices.
Hunt recognizes he may be in a unique situation because Massachusetts, along with Hawaii, are the most solar friendly states in the nation. Without federal energy credits and state incentives for green power, the projects likely would not be viable, he says. In some areas, rural electric cooperatives charge customers “demand charges” to offset the maintenance cost of power line and power plant infrastructure. These “demand charges” can sometimes be as much as the power that is saved by solar, wind or methane generation.
Federal tax credits for solar power will also diminish over time. They remain at 30% for 2018 and 2019, drop to 26% in 2020, to 22% in 2021, and then fall to 10% in 2022 onwards.
Still, with green power incentives in place, the solar projects can provide long-term financial security. Most of the projects are for 20 years and there can be built-in, 2% inflation clauses in land leases. After the 20-year lease ends, the equipment becomes the property of the landowner if he or she wishes to retain it. If not, the leasing company must remove the equipment and the land brought back to its original state at the expense of the leasing company.
Contract terms can vary. So farmers need to read the fine print and fully understand the agreements. If done correctly, say the Hunts, solar contracts can be a real boost the farm’s bottom line.