Solar Panels Power Small Dairyby John Schmitz, Freelance Writer
Capital Press, February 9, 2007
System provides farm and home electricity
SCOTTS MILLS, Ore. - A small dairy farm near Silverton, Ore., is milking its new solar energy system for all it's worth and saving considerable money on electricity in the process.
The 32 ground-mounted solar collectors, which were installed in early June 2006 by Summers Solar Systems of Salem, "have been working real well," said owner-operator Barbara Spinola.
"In the summer, with long days and lots of sun, they were doing 99 percent of my bill. Now (mid-January) it's probably doing 10 percent," she said.
Electrical energy produced by the system is used to provide electricity needed on the farm and in the home. Any excess electricity that is generated goes into the Portland General Electric grid and earns Spinola utility credits. On Spinola's farm the solar panels are angled in such a manner so as to capture as much as possible of the sun's energy throughout the year.
"Her (collector) tilt is optimal for the year around," said contractor Ron Summers. "If the panels were lying flat on a roof they would produce a lot (of electricity) in the summer but not much in the winter."
With federal and state tax credits, a cash incentive from the Oregon Energy Trust and the five-year depreciation schedule all figured in, Spinola paid only around 17 percent for the $35,000 system. She figures the payback time for her $6,000 out-of-pocket cost will be around five years.
On top of that she will be saving on electricity.
Even if there were no savings, "I had the money and felt I should just do it for the planet," she said.
For commercial solar systems, the federal tax credit is 30 percent and the state tax credit is 35 percent. Summers said the state credit could be bumped to 50 percent this year.
While Oregon's Willamette Valley does not get a lot of sunshine during winter months, Summers said the photo-voltaic panels will still usually collect some energy. "If you can cast a shadow you can get solar energy."
Summers said that it's the sun's light energy and not heat energy that enables solar panels to generate electricity. Heat energy around the panels is actually undesired. "If the collectors are running really hot, let's say on a black roof, and you're in the middle of summer, that heat will cause the collectors not to work as efficiently."
On peak energy days, Spinola's system will produce close to 5 kilowatts per hour, she said. "These days, on a sunny day it's cranking out about 1.8 kilowatts an hour."
The usual scenario with photo-voltaic solar systems is that people produce more electricity than they need during the day, causing the meter to run backwards as electricity is fed onto the grid. In the evening, the reverse happens.
"At the end of the month it depends on which way the meter went the most," Summers said. If it went backwards most of the time, the utility owes the customer money. If it went forward the most, the customer owes the utility money.
In order to become totally energy independent, Spinola is considering having some 6-volt batteries installed with her system. The batteries would be charged every day by the solar panels and make that electricity available in the event of a PGE power failure.
Spinola said she qualified for all the program perks because she runs a commercial operation that sells milk on the farm.
At the time she had the solar system installed she was running three milkers. She is down to one now.
"I have the one's daughter, who will be fresh next year. I don't know if I'll go back to two or not - depends on demand. I do seem to have more and more demand for the raw milk."
Spinola said she's heard that there are solar panels coming that do better in the rain than when it's sunny. "I'm thinking I should get some of those, too."
So far Spinola has had no problems with her solar unit, she said. "The only thing I have to do is keep the panels clean. I hosed them off once last summer. They got pretty dusty when they were combining out back. Other than that, it's totally automatic and tied into the grid."
Spinola learned about the solar panels from an article in the Silverton Appeal newspaper that featured a much larger system Summers was installing at a local nursery. He has since picked up another nursery account in the area.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs