As third-generation Idaho farmers, my husband and I are always looking for ways to improve our farm and save money. Recently, we visited a solar-powered farm west of Glenns Ferry. Russell Shiermeier installed solar panels on his farm to generate electricity for his irrigation pumps. With 3,400 acres, Shiermeier’s farm has the distinction of being Idaho Power’s largest, solar-powered farm project under the utility’s net metering program.
“Idaho Power is the most important partner I have in farming,” Schiermeier told us as he lifted his three-year-old daughter, Elli, into his arms and walked to his pickup.
As Schiermeier sees it, the relationship with Idaho Power is a synergistic one. Under net metering, his farm power bill has dropped from $140 to $70 an acre. In turn, Schiermeier says, his solar project supports Idaho Power’s green and renewable energy initiatives. Also, when the weather is the hottest in the summer, and power demands are the greatest, his farm’s reliance on solar helps lighten Idaho Power’s load.
But, Shiermeier warned, the program is under review. Idaho Power has asked the public utilities commission to suspend commercial net metering. Schiermeier said he’s hoping the benefits of the program will outweigh any perceived problems. He’s heard net metering is very popular, and he’s hopeful other farm operations can take advantage of it.
“With solar, I’ve got a green source of energy and no carbon emissions—plus I’ve got 480 volts of 3-phase electricity on the end of a rural power line—a power line where energy fluctuations occur.”
As irrigating farmers ourselves, Shiermeier’s solar power project sounded almost too good to be true. I asked Shiermeier about the hurdles he had to cross before he realized utility bill savings. He said he’d needed financing for the solar equipment and installation, and took advantage of the government’s 30% tax incentive for alternative energy projects. Grants were another important source of funding. He’d submitted applications to REAL (Rural Energy for America program).
“Let’s go for a ride in the pickup,” Schiermeier tells Elli as he places her in the cab of his truck. “Once the financing was in place, I started looking for a good design. I didn’t want to just clear-cut fifty acres and plant a bunch of solar panels on it. I wanted something really efficient.”
With his mechanical engineering degree from University of Idaho, Schiermeier developed a plan he thought would work for his farm. He decided to integrate solar power where he needed it most, in his farm fields and near his irrigation pumps. Eight solar stations with six solar-paneled arrays each, are set on field corners or waste ground throughout his farm. The multi-directional arrays track the sun all day long wherever it may be in the sky.
After seeing what Shiermeier’s done on his farm, my husband and I are ready to try out solar power. Our hope is commercial net metering is here to stay. It’s good for both business and our environment.
Diana Hooley writes from her farm home near Glenns Ferry.
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