Does Going Solar Make ‘Cents?’

As we inch closer to the start of spring, producers realize their energy bills will begin rising, too. On-farm costs have dramatically risen over the past half decade — from increased feed to labor to energy.

To help power their dairies and manage their costs, two producers share how one main resource, sunlight, offset rising energy costs and helped their dairy stay in business.

Near Royalton, Minn., Doug and Jane Popp use their passion and frugality to keep their small, 40-cow dairy humming along. Doug Popp’s family purchased the farm when he was in seventh grade, and his father continued his day job in the Twin Cities until he retired in 1987.

To help keep energy costs at a manageable level, the Popps decided to put the wind, sun and energy-efficient technology to work. In 2010, a family member who was taking a course in renewable energy systems asked the Popps if he could use their farm to complete a solar assessment for a school assignment. Soon after, they realized their farm was the perfect location for solar panels — up on the hill, just south of the wind turbine they placed on their farm four years prior.

The Popps began crunching numbers, just like all farmers do, as well as looking at renewable energy programs available in their state.

“It became clear to us that solar could be a great investment to our farm,” Doug Popp says.

First Steps

Before installing wind or solar on their farm, the Popps had an on-the-farm audit, that outlined recommended efficiency improvements. Upgrades were made, such as replacing the bulk tank, adding both a plate cooler and scroll compressor, as well as changing their tiestall barn ventilation to a wind tunnel style to boost efficiencies.

Not wanting to be wasteful, the family liked the idea of combining wind and solar as Popp says, “it is dual purpose and saves money and the environment.” In 2007 the wind turbines went up, and four years later the family installed solar panels. The family’s motto has always been to reduce cost, but they also ask themselves, “How much do we want to keep investing in our operation if there is not a future generation to take it over?”

Being landlocked, the Popps couldn’t expand, so they had to look at ways that not only made dollars, but sense for their operation.

“We started doing research in 2006 and two-thirds of both projects [wind and solar] were paid by grants,” Popp says.

Between the wind and solar systems, a quarter of Popp’s electric bill is paid by renewable energy.

“We estimate that we are saving $1,400 annually,” Popp says. “Which might not seem like a lot of money, but for our small 40-cow Minnesota dairy, it adds up.”

Popp says if he had to choose between wind and solar, he would choose solar.

“There is really no maintenance to solar,” he says. “I would put more panels up, but I’m locked in on my initial 10 kW.”

The Popps believe they invested in solar at the right time and recommend to anyone who is considering an energy-efficient upgrade to hire a grant writer.

“Find a grant writer who works at least partly on commission and that the incentives line up,” Popp says.