Conference sheds sunlight on solar energy
June 12, 2015
By WYATT STAYNER
Herald Staff Writer
Fred Schnell wants to hire the sun, even if it could cost him nearly $100,000.
Schnell, a 57-year-old turkey producer from Birdseye, is in the market for solar panels and they are not cheap. But the alternative has been costing him too much money for years. In the summer, when heat and humidity rises, Schnell’s power bill reaches $3,500 just to keep his seven barns close to the 63-degree temperature he considers optimal, but difficult to reach, for housing turkeys.
“Solar excites me so much because it’s free energy,” Schnell said after speaking at a solar panel conference Thursday at the Huntingburg Events Center, a meeting hosted by the Purdue University Extension Office. “I just have to go up there and capture it and bring it down to my level to reutilize it.”
The conference, which was attended by about 60 people, was aimed at introducing solar technology to farmers and residents in Dubois County and to show them that although solar power is expensive, it is an option that could pay off in the long run by slicing utility bills nearly in half (and sometimes more). Financial assistance to help pay for the hot technology can be obtained.
“(Solar energy) is very dependent upon incentives, in terms of tax incentives, grants and loan guarantees,” said Chad Martin, and energy extension specialist with Purdue University who helped organize Thursday’s conference. “But if all those fall into place, it does become a good opportunity.”
Schnell said he needs to get his solar project rolling soon so he can be eligible for a 30 percent tax break that expires at the end of 2016 and is also looking to acquire United States Department of Agriculture grant funds that will help cover 25 percent of the project; another farmer vying for a piece of the $280 million made available by the Obama administration to rural agricultural producers and small business owners who utilize renewable energy in their operations. After grant money, various tax breaks and write-offs, Schnell will most likely pay less than half of the project’s cost, which will be between $125,000 and $180,000.
“There’s a big push from the top all the way down for renewable energy,” said Jerry Hay, who works with the USDA’s Rural Development Program and spoke at Thursday’s conference.
In the summer, Schnell sometimes has to start cooling his barn as early as 9 a.m., already running 30 of his 50 fans, and that’s still eight hours before the peak heat fills his barn at 5 p.m. His hope, as of now, is to get about a third of his energy needs, 60 kilowatts, met through solar power, saving about 30 percent on his power bill. He’d set dual-axis tracker panels on the ground outside of his 140,000-square-foot barn operation, instead of placing them on the roof. The panels would rotate and follow the sun’s path during the day. At night, the system would switch back to the regular power grid. In the winter, the panels would produce less energy, but also be more efficient, since the panels stay cooler.
“Mother nature is saying, ‘Let me help you out with the workload,’” Schnell said.
Ryan Zaricki, the owner of Whole Sun Designs in Evansville, helped one of Schnell’s nephews, Cale Schnaus, who also lives in the Evansville area, set up a solar system on his roof and now he’s doing the same with Schnell’s turkey operation. Last September, Schnaus told Schnell that the panels cut his utility bill by about 30 percent, and Schnell thought he’d like his bill, which vacillates between $2,500 and $3,500, to be similarly decreased.
Zaricki said he’s seen a steady interest in solar energy in Dubois County the last couple years; he has sold five of the seven solar panel systems registered with the Jasper-based Dubois Rural Electric Cooperative. Zaricki noted that said solar technology has improved significantly over the past few years — it’s easier to install, more efficient and affordable and more resistant to farm chemicals such as ammonia, which can corrode the panels. Solar utility bills as low as $10 have helped Zaricki sell the shiny, futuristic systems.
“Once one person in the neighborhood gets the system installed, other people recognize that it’s not some space-age technology,” Zaricki said. “It’s something that’s tangible today, that really works today.”
If everything goes according to plan, Schnell should have his system running by late September. Schnell said he wants the system to cut cost, but also to help the environment.
“God,” Schnell said, “is always going to give us sun.”
Contact Wyatt Stayner at firstname.lastname@example.org.