Solar Solutions

Powering country property with the sun now makes more sense than ever.


| May/June 2008



Solar wind pumps

Wind pumps sweet Ogallala water, and PV-generated electricity powers the fence on this remote Nebraska cattle ranch.

Hank Will

When building contractor Gerald Whipple moved to southern Utah more than a decade ago, he found the perfect piece of property – 20 peaceful acres, 20 miles from town. The only problem was that his land was three miles from the nearest power line, and the utility wanted more than $125,000 to connect his new home to the grid. That’s when he decided to harness the sun. As Whipple quickly discovered, solar is a cost-effective solution for powering rural homes, agricultural buildings and equipment, and not only for landowners living far from existing power lines but also for those living where electric rates are high.

“The upfront cost is the biggest drawback to renewable energy,” Whipple says. But as fuel and electric rates continue to climb and more state and federal grants and tax credits for renewable energy become available, solar power makes financial sense. Whipple discovered such high demand for renewable energy in the American West that he founded his own consulting business, Solar Unlimited. In a typical year, his company installs 75 to 80 solar systems for varied uses on rural land throughout southern Utah, and most of his business is from clients who want to be off the grid. 

Passive harvest

One of the easiest and least expensive ways to make use of the sun’s energy is through passive solar building design. By simply orienting the long axis of a structure to face south, and installing as many south-facing windows as possible, the building can take in the warmth of the sun on cold winter days. Since the sun is farther north in the summer, carefully designed roof overhangs will shade the windows during the hottest months. In climates with mild winters, passive solar gain can easily provide all the heat and most of the light for a well-designed structure during the day. Keeping the house warm at night typically relies on insulated blinds and re-radiation from large masses in the house (such as masonry walls) that absorb excess heat during the day.

In addition to passive solar design, Whipple uses photovoltaic (PV) panels to generate electricity. Photovoltaic panels convert a portion of the energy in sunlight to direct current (DC) electricity, which can then be stored in batteries for future use. An inverter converts the DC power to alternating current (AC) for use in the home or elsewhere on the farm.

Tom Kimbis, acting program manager with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Program, says that PV panel technology has changed very little over the years. Most are still silicon based with some progress in efficiency and overall thickness of the panels. The technology is still reasonably expensive, although prices are dropping because demand has allowed some manufacturing scale up.

Since much of the cost of installing a PV system relates to installation, thin film solar laminates might make more sense than rigid glass-coated panels because they’re easier and, therefore, faster to install on a large scale. Static installations capture about 60 percent of the sunlight and are considerably less expensive than the dynamic systems that track the sun throughout the day.





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