Farm a Lesson in Solar Success — and Struggles

12/15/2012 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

GEIGERTOWN, Pa. — When Chelsea Watts thinks of the solar panels installed on the 80-acre farm she calls home, she still can’t get over the fact that the meter on the side of her house turns backward.

“When we got them put in, we probably sat down on our front porch, just watching it spin backward. Then, going to all of the neighbor’s houses to make sure that theirs goes the other way,” the young 17-year-old high school junior said recently on a chilly morning on the family farm.

But the panels are more than just a novelty.

For Watts, whose high school is diving headfirst into researching alternative energy technologies, it provides an at-home laboratory to see solar power up close and personal.

“I think it’s just fun,” she said with a laugh.

Watts is a junior at Daniel Boone High School, where dozens of physics students are involved in research projects taking a look at the effectiveness of alternative energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal.

Just recently, the school was awarded two $500 Met-Ed/First Energy STEM grants to help bring an algae biodiesel reactor project online.

It’s something physics teachers Shannon Helzer and Sid Harwood have been working on for several years.

A total of 37 students are participating in the program.

The goal is not only to teach students about alternative energy, but also to immerse them in a working laboratory environment.

“We’re trying to expose them to energy, but we’re also trying to expose them to real life lab work,” Helzer said.

In Watts’ case, she’s already getting exposed to what it’s like having solar panels on the farm and the real life struggles of having a system that not only costs a lot upfront, but also can take a while to pay back.

The 80-acre family farm goes back to the 1950s, when Watts’ great-grandparents bought it.

The farm has traditionally had laying hens — up to 10,000 at one point.

In the 1970s, her grandparents bought the farm and kept it in poultry until the 1980s, when the family decided to get out of the business altogether.

David Watts, Chelsea’s father, continued farming the ground when his father decided to retire at the age of 58. He still does some farming today, although he also holds a full-time job as a papermill foreman in nearby Reading.

Through the years, the family has kept separate goat and sheep herds — 30 to 60 head of sheep and 16 to 18 head of registered Boer goats.

The family has also dabbled in selling pumpkins and gourds direct to retail.

“That was a good business. We kind of did it when nobody else did. It was a good time and place for us,” David Watts said, adding that the money the family made in eight weeks of sales covered their living expenses for an entire year.

Feeling the pressure of competition and a changing environment when others turned their pumpkin patches into full-fledged agritainment destinations, David Watts decided to get out of the business six years ago.

And while he still uses hay from his fields to feed the remaining animals on the farm, most of the field work, he said, is done by neighboring farmers who not only lease the land, but also fertilize it with manure, enabling him to get good cuttings of hay each summer.

Ironically, David Watts said the idea for putting in solar panels came after he found out about the projects at Daniel Boone from Chelsea.

“I was totally shocked in an area like this, that these two guys are interested in it. I thought it was a great thing,” he said.

Watts said he’s always considered himself to be self-sufficient.

Even though the family at one point was hooked up to the town’s water supply, they eventually decided to save money on their water bill and dig a well.

They’ve also installed an outdoor stove to help heat their Civil War-era home.

The solar panels, a 10 kilowatt system, were installed last June in a pasture behind the house next to where the sheep are kept.

“It was not a thing we just wandered into. We did a lot of research,” David Watts said.

The family received a state grant worth $12,500 to put the panels in and figured it would take about six years for them to pay for themselves, given the fact that solar energy credits, at the time, were still fetching good money.

That was 2011.

2012 hasn’t been a good year for solar, at least in Pennsylvania. Solar energy credits now sell for a fraction of what they once did because of a glut of credits on the market and the fact that utilities are required to purchase only a small number of solar credits to fulfill their alternative energy portfolios.

David Watts estimates it’s increased the number of years he will probably spend paying back the system from six to 15 years.

“I regret it a little bit, because of the collapse of the energy credit market in the state. I think it can be good again, but it’s going to take a government program to make it good,” he said.

The best thing about the panels is that it’s lowered his electric bill to almost nothing. A $9.20 a month wire charge to Met-Ed is all he pays.

But he thinks a combination of solar and geothermal, which harnesses cold and warm air from underground, is the way to go.

Even though she considers her goats to be her specialty, having solar panels, Chelsea Watts said, has been a learning experience for her and her family, and one she hopes to share with fellow students.

“It was definitely an interesting process to unfold,” she said.

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