'It’s a No-Brainer’

2/23/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

Upstate NY Farmers Finding Big Savings in Solar Power

SARATOGA, N.Y — Escalating costs such as taxes, fuel, feed and fertilizer are among the biggest challenges for anyone involved with today’s agricultural industry.

Some upstate New York farmers are fighting back by turning to the sun for help, which can lower their power bills while allowing them to lock into long-term, guaranteed electricity rates.

Peckhaven Farm, a 110-cow dairy in Saratoga, had two separate 25,000-watt photovoltaic solar panel systems installed last February and has already realized a $10,000 savings.

“It’s a no-brainer,” said David Peck, who runs the farm with his father, Joseph. “The big savings is going to be 25 years down the road because electricity is going to increase faster than the overall inflation rate,”

Peckhaven and the Barber Brothers Dairy, in nearby Northumberland, have taken advantage of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s NY-Sun initiative, which makes funding available through the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority’s Solar PV Program for systems that are 50 kilowatts or smaller.

Ordinarily, installation would have cost Peckhaven about $300,000. However, a combination of grants, refundable tax credits and depreciation made Peck’s cost about one-third that, or roughly $100,000.

The Barbers paid a similar amount.

“Farm Credit really helped out by giving us the loan we needed,” said Linda Barber, who owns the farm with her son, Chad.

Dairy farms require large amounts of electricity to cool milk and to keep cows comfortable with giant fans during the hot summer months. Prior to having their systems installed, NYSERDA did energy audits at both the Peck and Barber farms, to see how they could reduce electricity usage ahead of time.

Barber said her farm saved several thousand dollars per month by replacing large, old barn fans with new ones.

Peck said that his new photovoltaic system produces almost 90 percent of the farm’s electricity requirements. “It’s definitely significant,” he said.

The system is designed to last at least 25 years

Cuomo’s NY-Sun initiative is a public-private partnership to drive growth of the solar industry and make solar technology more affordable for all New Yorkers, including residential and commercial users. NYSERDA is authorized to provide up to $3.1 million worth of incentives per month in 2013 through this program.

The Barbers’ solar panels were installed last February, too.

“In summer, the system made more kilowatt hours than the farm uses so we accumulated credits,” Linda Barber said. “We just used up all those credits, so except for a small tax bill, we’ve had free electricity up until now this winter.”

In addition, they recently went one step further by installing a solar hot water system for the main cow barn.

In neighboring Washington County, Pleasant Valley Farm started out with a 10,000-watt photovoltaic system and later added another that supplies 20,000 watts.

Combined, the two systems supply all the electricity needed for this Argyle, N.Y. organic produce operation and co-owners Paul and Sandy Arnold’s home.

The newest 20-kilowatt system cost $125,000 to install, but a combination of state and federal grants reduced their personal outlay to about $31,000, and they can declare the improvement as a farm expense on their taxes. So within several years, the system will have entirely paid for itself.

They also saved money by doing preparatory site work themselves.

Thomas Poultry Farm, in Northumberland, has 180,000 laying hens and supplies all the eggs for Stewart’s Shops, a major eastern New York chain of retail stores. In addition to cooling and ventilation, the business requires large amounts of electricity for its feed mill and egg processing machinery. However, this farm has taken a different route to achieving energy independence from the sun.

Instead of working with NYSERDA, the Thomases had their photovoltaic system put in last spring by Latham-based New York Light Energy company, which has also installed solar panels at Sycaway Creamery in Troy.

Solar customers are guaranteed lower rates than what they’re currently paying utilities, but unlike the NYSERDA program, they don’t have to make any up-front capital investments. The customer only pays for the energy produced and does not invest in equipment or maintenance.

“It definitely is going to be a savings,” Joshua Thomas said. “It’s important to cut costs as much as you can in farming these days. Everybody’s got to find some way.”

The NY-Sun initiative is also available to homeowners, small businesses and not-for-profits. For information go to: www.nyserda.ny.gov/pv and scroll down to “NYSERDA Solar PV Program Incentives (for systems 50 kW and smaller).” NYSERDA has a competitive incentive program for larger PV systems as well.

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