November 9, 2017
When farmers were asked at the 2016 and 2017 Powering Michigan Agriculture Conference to rank the factors they would use when deciding to implement a renewable energy or energy conservation project, they said return on investment was their most important consideration.
Many farms throughout Michigan have completed a renewable energy assessment or certified agricultural energy audit, and used the information to make investment decisions regarding a renewable energy project or energy efficiency practices. One such farm is Black Star Farms.
Black Star Farms is a unique wine and culinary destination near Suttons Bay, Mich., which includes a luxury inn, event spaces, a farm-to-table cafe, a distillery and an equestrian facility. Over 300 acres of grapes are crafted into award-winning wine. The winery itself is a co-op owned by five different partners and sells 30,000 to 35,000 cases of wine every year. The farm also maintains a qualified forest management program and some agrotourism through a petting zoo.
The solar energy project implemented at Black Star Farms was a fixed, ground-mounted solar array with a vibrated I-beam structure, including a single array of 204 260-W modules for a total of 53.04 kW. It was installed by Harvest Energy Solutions, implementing SolarEdge optimizers and inverters.
The solar field, consisting of three physical structures, was positioned next to the on-site petting zoo with an overall footprint of 7,232 square feet (64 by 113 feet). The system was designed to offset 90% of annual energy usage for the nearby wine tasting room. Cherryland Electric Cooperative commissioned the system on Nov. 1, 2015.
When electricity production exceeds farm use for the day, the excess production is banked on the farm account and can be used at a future date, but the farm only gets a 6 cents per kWh credit on its bill for it. That excess electricity production can also be sold to Cherryland Electric at 2 cents per kWh. Given these scenarios, the take-home message is that it is best to match solar system production to daily consumption to attain the best value received for the electricity produced given current Net Metering guidelines in Michigan.
The total cost of the solar power system was $201,443, but with additional costs for the grant application, service upgrades and permits, the total cost amounted to $219,701. Black Star Farms received a total of $92,145 in external funding — $47,762 from a USDA Rural Development REAP grant, $25,000 from the Michigan Farm Energy Program, $14,469 in Cherryland Electric Capital Credits and $4,914 in rebates from Cherryland. The project was financed with an initial company contribution and a seven-year loan from GreenStone Farm Credit Services. Overall, the project payback period was calculated to be nine years.
Black Star Farms conducted a company-wide energy audit in 2015 and has implemented many energy and cost-saving initiatives since then, such as converting luminaires to LEDs and installing high-efficiency boilers. The managers highly recommend that other farmers conduct an energy audit to start reaping the benefits of improved energy efficiency.
The managers state that the process of completing the solar power project was seamless from start to finish. Though they had never installed a solar energy system before, they had put time into comparing different contractors and systems to determine the best fit for their farm. They state that their utility, Cherryland Electric Cooperative, was excellent to work with throughout the process in terms of availability and willingness to answer questions and come up with solutions.
The managers also appreciated the funding provided by GreenStone. While the managers emphasize that they implemented this renewable energy project for the environmental and economic benefits, they’ve noticed an additional benefit in the form of positive feedback from customers.
A full specification sheet of the solar energy system as well as an aerial view of the system and surrounding property, monthly data of actual and predicted electricity production and the solar energy system cost breakdown can be accessed in the Black Star Farms Case Study. Monthly production data for 2017 will be included in the updated version of this case study by the end of the year.
Contact Al Go at [email protected] about energy audit options and funding.
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