A Place in the Sun

Published online: Sep 15, 2020 Articles, New Products, Potato Storage Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This article appears in the September 2020 issue of Potato Grower.

Trust.

It’s what every business transaction is based on: the trust that what the seller is selling will provide a commensurate benefit to the buyer. If that trust is broken, the business relationship is likely to end.

When solar power first started making waves at the beginning of the millennium, a lot of businesses, including farms, were understandably skeptical of adopting the technology. Solar was and still is a big investment, one that big entities already running on tight margins need to be assured will bring back a return. Buhl, Idaho-based Gietzen Solar has, in partnership with Solar Farms by Agri-Stor, spent the last few years cultivating relationships of trust with southern Idaho farmers, and both sides are now seeing that trust pay off in a big way. 

“Installing a solar power system is a whole lot of money; we understand that,” says Joey Richardson, project engineer at Gietzen Solar. “But through tax incentives and electric bill savings, our customers will make all that back in five to seven years, on a system that will easily last 30 years. At that payback point, the system is essentially giving you free power. You’re getting the energy from the sun instead of having to buy it from the utility. Once it pays for itself, you’re reducing the fixed cost of your power bill to almost nothing.”

The incentives Richardson mentions include a federal tax credit that covers 26 percent of a commercial system’s cost if purchased in 2020, 22 percent in 2021, and 10 percent in every subsequent year. For agricultural applications, a grant is also available from the USDA that offsets up to 25 percent of the total cost. On top of that, a solar energy system can be depreciated on a farm’s taxes the same as any other equipment. Depending on location, state and county governments may offer additional incentives for utilizing solar.

In the last year, Gietzen Solar has installed large solar panels on new construction potato cellars in Filer and Burley, Idaho, customers have been pleased with the projects and optimistic about the value they add to their farms.

Grant 4-D Farms in Rupert, Idaho, is currently pursuing a 100-year vision of fulfilling the needs of customers and food supply chains. During this process, they took the opportunity to assess where they could make changes to improve the storability of potatoes and reduce the impact of farming to improve their sustainability footprint.

“As we tossed ideas around, Agri-Stor, Gietzen Electric, Steel Vision, Idaho Power, and the Twin Falls County commissioners were strong advocates of encouraging the growth of agriculture in southern Idaho and came up with some outstanding options,” says Ryan Miller, farm director at Grant 4D Farms. “By using the structure and the footprint of the potato storage and installing photo-voltaic panels to produce electricity, we have reduced the demand on electricity needed from the surrounding community and power grid, and reduced our cost of production for years to come.”

“Not every storage will have all the same needs,” says Richardson. “A cellar might only have capabilities for ventilation but not for cooling. But a potato cellar will usually have most of its southern exposure taken up by solar panels to utilize this space as efficiently as possible.”

Utilizing all that space returns immediate results: Richardson says the goal for every Gietzen system installed on a potato cellar is for it to offset 80 to 100 percent of that building’s energy needs.

“A lot of people who buy potatoes from the grower love that they can use the solar thing as a marketing tool for the end user at the grocery store,” adds Gietzen Solar business manager Cat Gietzen. “It’s great for people to see that these potato products are grown and produced using green energy.”

Can you imaging the ridicule faced by the first farmer to spend his hard-earned money on a tractor? The neighbors probably thought he was completely off his rocker. But as the technology proved itself growing season after growing season, it was adopted into ubiquity. Solar isn’t exactly a newfangled technology anymore, but it’s still met with a healthy dose of skepticism. It’s tough to deny, though, that its track record is getting longer and more glowing with each passing year. Is it for your farm? Maybe, maybe not. The only thing the folks at Gietzen Solar—and similar companies around the country—are asking from the ag industry is a little bit of trust.