This is our system, from the app on my phone, at 10:32 in the morning on April 6, 2021. A sunny spring day. That dark you see on the right side is from the shade of a silver maple tree on that corner, which we do not want to remove, as it provides critical shade for our animals in the summer. By midday, the angle of the sun has changed enough that its no longer an issue.

Way back when I was about 20, I attended a few “alternative” building and energy lectures while I was at San Jose State. I probably still have a brochure on “rammed earth” building somewhere (and still have a deep interest in earthship building techniques (we’ve visited the ones in Taos New Mexico twice). But every time I looked at the price, there was just no way I could afford to go “off grid”.

With the advent of net metering, where the consumer installs a power generating system that is hooked into the electric grid, things started to seem more realistic. You don’t have to install a system that meets all of your needs all of the time, including banks of batteries. Instead, your system feeds back into the existing electrical grid. When you generate power, you get paid by your power company for that electricity, and if you are producing more than you need, someone else can use it. If your system doesn’t meet all of your needs, you’re not left hanging with no power.

Net metering varies by state. Currently, 34 states have mandated net metering. From the point of view of the power company, the less you need them, the less money they are making to invest in their own infrastructure, including that grid that distributes YOUR excess energy to other users. So net metering scares the crap out of them and they spend creative ways fighting the change. But thankfully, public pressure in the form of legislative and voter initiatives has forced most states to get on board. We’re a part of Pacific Power in Washington. Information on their net metering here.

In 2019, we attended a farming conference, and went to a presentation by Spark Northwest, a non profit that helps farms get grants for solar, among much other great work. Between the grant and the federal tax credit, suddenly, putting a solar system on our barn roof, which faces south, seemed actually doable. I contacted them early in 2020, and we started the process.

Spark Northwest helped me write a USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) grant, which covers up to 25% of the cost to install solar.

From the USDA website: The [REAP} program provides guaranteed loan financing and grant funding to agricultural producers and rural small businesses for renewable energy systems or to make energy efficiency improvements. Agricultural producers may also apply for new energy efficient equipment and new system loans for agricultural production and processing.

As part of the preparation for the grant, I needed to have a list of all of our electric bills for the past 12 months (we have two meters – one for the house/farm and one for the irrigation pump). I also needed to detail the energy use inventory of all farm power needs, including multiple refrigerators and freezers, our walk-in cooler, the electric used in the commercial kitchen (heating/cooling, hot water, appliances) and home office, and energy needed for things like irrigation and keeping animals warm and water unfrozen. This took some time, and some online energy use lookups for models of hot water heater and refrigerator/freezers that I didn’t have immediate data on. Our total electric use for the year was 29,263 kwh for the whole property. We estimated that 13,495 kWh of that was farm related (46%).

28 panels, with offending maple tree off to the right.

I can’t emphasize enough how much having Spark Northwest essentially write this grant with my input made this process doable. Government grants are opaque and confusing. You need things like a Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance Number, your Congressional District number, a DUNS number and a CAGE number. Knowing where all those numbers go, and how to find them is SUPER helpful. I can’t say enough good things about Spark Northwest.

We got a total of three bids for the actual work. Two were from regional companies that Spark Northwest was familiar with (a third one never got back to me), and then Walla Walla Electric, a local electric company. I knew that Walla Walla Electric had done Welcome Table Farm’s solar install, so it was a no brainer to get a bid from them. They turned out to be considerably less expensive than the other bids (as in $10,000 less). Because I was paying the full price of the install UP FRONT, and then being reimbursed once the system was online, the initial price tag was super important. And being able to have a local company do the work, so that we had someone to call if there were any issues, seemed like a really good idea!

Based on the square footage of the barn roof, the bid was for a 10.36 KW solar array with 28 panels for $21,117. The actual solar cells have a 25 year warranty and are made in the USA. The system is estimated to generate 12,673 kWh per year, taking into consideration everything from our latitude/day length, the slight shade on the corners of the roof from trees for a few hours in the AM/PM, the amount of sunlight we get here in Walla Walla every day (we’re REALLY overcast in the winter) and the fact that the system is static (it does not move with the sun). The whole system can be monitored with an app on my phone. I have to provide an annual Project Performance Report back to the granting agency yearly for 3 years.

Screen shot of app that reports on the system. Taken April 6, 2021

The one thing the system does NOT do? Generate electricity we can use when the power goes out. This is a safety feature, because if the lines are down, but MY system is pushing electricity back through the lines, a lineman could be electrocuted. We did, at the time of the solar installation, put in a system to enable us to run our shop/well electrical panel on a generator (which has been on the list for about 10 years). Honestly, its rare for us to lose power here for more than a few hours a few times a year, so this was a reasonable compromise vs being more self sufficient. Our biggest issue (other than freezers thawing) when the power goes out is that we also lose our well water. President Biden’s stimulus check will be buying us a generator this month.

We paid for the actual solar equipment up front (a bit more than half the cost), and work began mid July 2020 – but then was delayed and delayed and delayed again due to a crazy busy season for Walla Walla Electric and not enough staff. Jared, who did most of the actual install, would show up and work for 45 minutes, only to be called off on an emergency repeatedly. Nothing anyone could do about it. Walla Walla was great to work with, and Tammy Yarwood, in the office, is worth her weight in gold, helping me submit all of the required paperwork for the completion of the grant and navigate a few issues we had along the way. Walla Walla electric also coordinated all of the communication and inspections with Pacific Power, which was critical to the success of the project.

The system became fully operational on December 15th. Having a local company do the work was the right choice, as we had a few hiccups they were able to trouble shoot quickly because they were in the area. And now I feel like I have a relationship with Walla Walla Electric. I recently had an unrelated electrical issue, and they had someone out to look at it in, I kid you not, 30 minutes. The issue was quickly resolved.

We also received a grant from our local Sustainable Living Center. Solar qualifies (funded by a local donor) as part of their Community Energy Efficiency Program grants. I paid for a Home Energy Audit ($95), and then our solar install qualified. $95 well spent.

So, here’s how the actual costs broke down.

10.36 KW 28 Panel Solar System at Miles Away Farm

Total Cost of System, which matched the bid – no tax$21,117
Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) Grant Reimbursement (25%)$5,279
Sustainable Living Center Walla Walla, CEEP Grant$3,000
Federal Tax Credit – Form 5695, Residential Energy Credits (26%)$5,490
Total Out of Pocket Expense$7,348
Grants and tax credits paid for 65% of the system

We expect to save about $1,042 per year on our electric bills with this system (based on 8.6 cents per kWh cost from Pacific Power). Which means about a 7 year payoff. This seems pretty typical for solar systems, from what I’ve learned. The business paid for the entire installation and then was reimbursed as credits/grants came in.

Note that this is what was possible in the year 2020 in our little corner of Washington state. Your mileage may vary. For instance, the Federal Tax Credit for solar has been lowered to 22% for 2021 (it was 30% in 2019). The price you pay per kWh might be much different as well. Washington has some of the lowest rates in the country due to all of the hydro power. US average at the time of this writing is 13.3 cents.

We are SO excited to have this system online, and to be lowering our carbon footprint one photon of sunlight at a time. But I also remember that we’ve saved a LOT of energy over the last 35 years since I attended my first solar lecture by doing these things:

  • Buying energy star rated appliances (literally EVERY large appliance I’ve purchased in the last 25 years)
  • Increasing insulation in the homes we’ve built/owned (heating and cooling – up to 47% of home energy use)
  • Putting our thermostat on a programmable schedule and setting nighttime home temperatures at 60 degrees.
  • Supplementing our heating with an EPA certified wood stove or fireplace in our Walla Walla and Colorado homes.
  • Using energy efficient lighting (I think we’ve now switched out almost every bulb from incandescent to CFL and then from CFL to LED in the last 20 years)
  • Turning down the thermostat on our hot water heaters (hot water heater – up to 14% of total home energy use)
  • Drying clothing on an outdoor laundry line (washer/dryer – up to 13% of home energy use)
A perfect day for drying this load of “gentle cycle” laundry outside.

If you have the money, and are trying to decide whether or not to spend it on a solar system or increased insulation in your attic, you’ll probably get a better return on investment with the insulation. Installing solar was the last in a LONG line of energy improvements over the years.

Oh, and that rammed earth I was so enamored with when I was 20? It has a terrible insulating value (though the mass can absorb and release heat slowly, helping mitigate temperature swings). Were I to do it now, I’d probably go with SIP’s (Structural Insulated Panels).

© 2021 Miles Away Farm, where we’re a long way from being off grid, and we’re OK with that, but we still want to build a root cellar. And we’d also LOVE to have a micro wind generator!