HP: What energy systems support your more recent ranch enterprises? How did you originally meet these needs? How did you design/size this system?
WW: We could not have expanded our meat production and the goat milk herd-share system without the energy upgrade, but we did use our house system and rely on the generator during the two years it took to get a grant and commercial system going.
In 2009, we obtained a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) grant to develop a commercial PV system for our dairy and meat enterprises, which require a commercial dishwasher, milking machine, barn lights, and refrigeration. The best solar site was 400 feet into the wetland from our barns, but it took nine months to get approval from the county for the structure. This was a huge delay that pushed the project into the late fall and winter, so we could not start construction until the following summer.
The 21 Samsung 247-watt PV modules are mounted on the roof of a new power shed, while the interior houses the rest of the system. It includes a Northern Lights 6 kW 120/240 VAC diesel generator and a diesel storage tank. But the PV system supplies about 90% of our commercial energy needs, providing electricity for three Energy Star-rated freezers, two commercial refrigerators, a commercial dishwasher/sanitizer with internal water-temperature booster, the vacuum pump for the milking machine and milking machine itself, and exhaust fans, as well as some lighting and smaller loads.
This system cost $85,000. The grant offset $20,000 of the cost, and we also took advantage of state and federal tax credits, which shaved more off the bottom line, although the balance was a ding to our pension fund and would not be fully recovered for a long time. That said, it has been worth all of the effort.
HP: What kind of involvement do the systems require?
WW: We have scheduled maintenance that we do every two weeks to check the battery electrolyte levels, the filters on the diesel generator, and the generator fluids, with oil changes based on the generator’s run time. Battery equalization is done monthly.
HP: What are the challenges in relying on this system for your business and home? How much do you rely on the backup generator?
WW: The technology is so advanced that we rely on the professionals who installed the systems for troubleshooting. This makes us less “independent,” but they are much more knowledgeable.
We will always need to rely on generator backup, as our refrigeration needs are significant. Milking, however, can (and sometimes does) take place by headlamp or battery-powered lanterns. Batteries are the main periodic expense and technology improves the quality of the inverters, so when we are looking for improved efficiency and can afford to upgrade, we will do so.
HP: Knowing what you know now, what, if anything, would you do differently from the start?
WW: Getting started, we mounted our renewable energy systems on existing structures, which resulted in less-than-optimal siting and, of course, lower energy production from our systems. Given a bigger budget, we would have installed our current system where it is now for both our home and our commercial electricity production.
HP: What accommodations have you made for living with an off-grid system?
WW: We have lived this way for so long that it’s normal—we don’t feel like we’re making concessions. We have flashlights for backup lighting and use rechargeable batteries and phones that are plugged in to recharge during the day, while our PV system is providing lots of electricity.
Willow Witt Ranch • 541-890-1998 • willowwittranch.com