Solar keeping poultry producers from scrambling

151
The Caskey egg production farm near Saline is one of the first in the state to install solar panels to offset utility costs, which accounts for up to 40 percent of their operating costs. From left are Suzanne Walker, Admin and Project Coordinator; Keith Freeman, portfolio manager, and Mike Croft, Director of Operations for Coastal Solar. Photo by Juanice Gray

By Juanice Gray, jgray@natchitochestimes.com

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

For local chicken houses, whether producing meat or eggs, neither came first.

Expenses did.

It costs to build the houses, purchase generators and equipment, buy feed and veterinary supplies, stock up on shipping and cleaning supplies and invest in tractors and other equipment necessary for day-to-day operations. Then there are loans and utilities to pay, all before the first egg or pullet leaves the property headed to market. One local six-house farm near Saline is taking the first step in reducing their costs by investing in “what the Good Lord gave us;” solar power. Robyn Caskey has an egg production family farm and learned about solar energy for poultry growers on a trade website. “If it was a way to save me money, I was open to it,” Caskey said.

She contacted Georgia based Coastal Solar in June. In August, representatives flew in and conducted a site survey and by Oct. 24, the panels were in place. Caskey’s farm is one of the first in the state to utilize solar energy to offset utility costs.

Jerry Romero, a research associate with LSU AgCenter said energy costs for egg producers routinely account for 25-30, and sometimes up to 40 percent, of operating costs. “Fans run constantly to circulate air and cool the barns and special lights run six or more hours per day,” he said. “This is an electricity consuming business.”

Coastal Solar Director of Operations Mike Croft said his company’s business model is centered on poultry farmers. “Solar equipment can be a key differentiator in profits. Everyone wants a more efficient operation.” Caskey said she hopes by going to solar she will be able to put more money into her farm and not into the power company.

Benefits of solar have long been debated, but with federal tax credits, a 20-year carry forward, low interest loans and grants, and 100 percent depreciation over six years, Caskey felt the benefits would outweigh the initial investment. Caskey said 11 months of the year, all six houses are in production yielding from 5,000 to, at peak time, 10,000 eggs per day per house. “We literally cannot afford to be without power,” she said.

The solar panels are not meant to replace conventional electricity, but to offset that cost. “Poultry operators use electricity and they all already have backup generators. Solar becomes their third source of power,” Croft said. “Each set up is customized based on that farm’s annual utility usage.” Croft said time to install the panels is six-10 days on average and they use local electrical contractors to provide wiring services. They also work with the local electric companies.

Caskey’s solar panels are practically maintenance free, have a 25 year warranty, will reduce brown outs and provide sustainability for the next generation, her children, Karley and Colt. “It’s an almost painless process,” Croft said. “There are very few permits needed and with no moving parts they don’t break down so you save maintenance costs.” Caskey’s solar investment should be fully operational by the time this article publishes.

Colt Caskey, 8, left, and Karley Caskey, 9, are the next generation of poultry farmers. Even when they are grown, these solar panels will be providing energy to run their family farm. Photo by Juanice Gray

“That farm is way ahead of the game,” Romero said. “Solar, or natural electricity, is the way of the future.”

By having a renewable resource Caskey hopes to cut her monthly electric bill in half. “A misconception about solar is that it is a ‘whole house’ solution. That isn’t the case. You still must have a generator to kick in when the conventional power goes off. Battery backup on the panels is another option as well,” Croft said.

How does it work?

Just let it flow. Solar electricity is sent to an inverter. It then flows through a service panel to the chicken house or to the grid (electric company). A net meter reports to the utility company. “Just because you have solar panels, doesn’t mean your utility company is out of the picture,” Croft said. “You’ll still be using some power from them. For example on cloudy days or at night, that’s where the net meter comes in. Your utility company uses it to read the amount of electricity you use from their grid. It also keeps track of electricity that flows into the grid from your system.” Croft said. “So, if your system creates more energy than you’ve used, like during sunny Louisiana summers, you get a credit on your bill.”

What about the initial cost?

There are government grants available through the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), enacted in the 2008 farm bill and a 30 percent federal tax credit to encourage renewable energy. REAP offers grants and/or loan guarantees for the purchase and installation of renewable energy generating systems and for energy efficiency improvements.  Assistance is limited to small businesses and farmers and ranchers. This will shave about 50 percent of the cost of purchasing and installing the system. When figuring depreciation and production in, Caskey’s payback on the system is approximately four-five years.

Caskey can also monitor, via an app, the operation of each panel. The app shows how much power the panel is producing, if there are any issues with the panel or inverter, how much power the panel has produced for the year and more.

The panels are built of tempered glass capable of withstanding 2-inch hail at 50 MPH, are North American made with the exception of the inverter and can hold up to an F4 tornado. “They only need cleaning with a mop and water once a year and we’ll spray for weed control around them,” Caskey said. “We can handle that.”

“Solar is a potential life changing bottom line investment to the people we feel need it the most, our farmers,” Croft said. “It’s science, but not rocket science.”

The Caskey poultry farm near Saline is one of the first in the state to install solar panels to offset utility costs. The system can be expanded to 590 panels as the farm grows.
Photo courtesy Coastal Solar
The Caskey Farm
Photo courtesy of Coastal Solar