By Connor Lynch
CASSELMAN — Crop farmers are already familiar with harvesting the sun and turning it into cash. But with increasing complaints about hydro bills and outrageous delivery charges, some dairy and poultry farmers are turning to the sun for their own operations.
Casselman-area dairy farmer Thomas Meyerhans, who milks 130 Holsteins in a freestall parlour, paid $300,000 to install solar panels in July. Since then, he hasn’t paid a hydro bill, and he expects the panels to pay for themselves inside of 10 years.
The 100 kw/h system on his 200-ft.-by-102-ft. barn generates more than enough power for his farm, but he doesn’t use it all immediately. Instead, he uses a system called net metering, where he sends the power out into the grid, gets a credit for it, and in turn collects the power, paid for with the credit, when he needs it. He said he considered using a methane digester to generate power for the farm but it was too expensive.
There are still issues to sort out, mostly with his electricity distributor, he said. “I think it takes four or five months for Hydro One to really figure out what’s going on,” Meyerhans said.
Farmers are getting increasingly interested in solar panels, said Warren Abar, president of Ottawa-based iSolara, a solar panel installation company.
“As solar has continued to come down in price and the cost of power has continued to escalate, people are realizing solar is the least expensive way to get your power,” he said. In fact, the company’s largest customer base is farmers, he said.
Benoit Laclau, Ernst and Young’s adviser on power and utilities, told the Globe and Mail that, globally speaking, electricity costs will be higher than the cost of using solar panels sooner than we think.
Think of drawing two intersecting lines as a graph on a piece of paper. The line starting low and slowly increasing represents the cost of electricity. The second line starts high and Laclau said this line is decreasing “rapidly” and it represents solar power on a house rooftop.
How soon will these two lines intersect? Depending on where you are in the world, Laclau estimated that residential solar power will be cheaper than traditional hydro in four to 10 years.
As it stands now, solar panels are also durable and efficient. Solar panels see about a 0.3 per cent degradation rate per year, said Abar. Panels are guaranteed to be producing 90 per cent of their initial power 25 years from now. Connecting a farmer to the grid on the scale they need for net metering usually costs between $11,000 and $17,000.
The panels also have the advantage of being, on average, much more reliable than other forms of renewal power like wind. In Ontario, Abar said, the amount of sunshine on average in a year varies up or down by about 4 per cent. The amount of wind varies by as much as 30 per cent.
Though batteries are uncommon in these arrangements, because most customers use net metering, where the grid basically functions as a battery, he said that’s going to change. As batteries become less expensive and more efficient, “people will start saying goodbye to hydro altogether.”
President of Downunder Solar at Kingston, Kurt Streicher, is also seeing an uptick in interest from farmers to invest in solar panels. It’s technically possible to take a dairy farm completely off-grid, but at some point the economics stop making sense. Net metering is generally a much more economical system.
Streicher’s company, which covers a two-hour radius around the city, is also seeing more interest from new home builders going off-grid or taking up net metering because the cost to connect the new home to the grid can be exorbitant. Streicher said he’s heard of connection costs ranging anywhere from $20,000 to $80,000 just for the hydro connection, although those are for people building homes well off the grid.