Farmers Harvest the Sun's Energy & Save
by Lura Roti for South Dakota Farmers Union
Renewable energy has intrigued Hans Breitenmoser since childhood.
"I can remember climbing up our 80-foot silo when I was a kid and thinking we should put up a wind turbine," says the Merrill, Wisconsin, dairy farmer.
His renewable energy daydreams became a reality in 2012 when he installed solar panels on the main freestall barn of his 430-cow dairy.
The panels produced about 10 percent of his dairy's energy needs. Which, he explains are substantial. "Even though today's dairy uses much less energy than we did in the past thanks to energy efficient technology, dairies use a lot of energy," he says, explaining energy is used to do everything from cool milk and run a parlor's milking equipment to powering ventilation fans, lagoon pumps and alley scrapers.
So, in 2016, when Breitenmoser was drawing up plans for a new barn, he decided to increase his farm's solar energy footprint. This time, instead of financing the project on his own, the Wisconsin Farmers Union member worked with Farmers Union Enterprises to help him fund the installation that, coupled with the 2012 panels, now covers 25 percent of his farm's energy needs.
"In the state of Wisconsin, we don't have any coal, we don't have any natural gas, so I think it's silly that in 2018 more than 60 percent of the electricity our citizens consume is produced by burning coal that has to be transported to our state from more than a 1,000 miles away," Breitenmoser says.
Investing in renewable energy not only aligns with Breitenmoser's moral compass, but it saves him, on average, more than $330 each month on his electric bill.
"The Wisconsin dairy industry is really hurting right now - corn and beans aren't worth much either - so, if solar energy can help farmers save money, and maybe provide an opportunity to sell extra energy back to the grid, all the while decreasing our use of fossil fuels, which we don't own, I think it's a good deal," Breitenmoser explains.
Darin Von Ruden agrees. "Every year we continue to see farmers leaving the land because they don't have a steady income," says the President of Wisconsin Farmers Union.
As state Farmers Union president, Von Ruden sits on the board of directors for Farmers Union Enterprises (FUE), the multi-business cooperative which helped Breitenmoser finance the solar panel installation.
The other Farmers Union state organizations which make up FUE include: South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota and Montana. All funds raised through FUE businesses go to support the National Farmers Union and the five state's Farmers Union organizations.
"We are always looking for ways to keep our farmers farming," says Von Ruden, who also has solar panels on his barn roof - saving him, on average, $625 in electricity each month.
FUE collaborated with North Wind Renewable Energy Cooperative to encourage Wisconsin farmers to consider solar energy.
"Farmers understand the long-term investment on equipment, like these solar panels," says Josh Stolzenburg, President of North Wind Renewable Energy Cooperative, an Amherst, Wisconsin, farmer and a Wisconsin Farmers Union member.
How it works
Because solar panels only weigh about 50 pounds each, the roof of farm buildings can easily handle the weight. Once installed, the solar panels work seamlessly with other electric sources to provide power.
"When I turn on a machine or light switch, I can't tell if the energy is from the panels or electric grid," says Breitenmoser.
And, when the sun isn't shining, electricity pulls from the power grid. However, research shows that northern states, like Wisconsin and South Dakota actually produce the same amount of solar energy as Florida.
"Why not harvest this power?" asks Doug Sombke, President of FUE and SDFU.
Sombke explains that now that the pilot the solar energy program in Wisconsin has gone well, FUE looks forward to working with Farmers Union members from North and South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana.
Also involved in county government, Breitenmoser says he sees farmers' use of solar energy as an opportunity to help the entire rural community.
"Every time you pay an electric bill, and the energy is produced by coal harvested 1,000 miles away, some of what you pay leaves your community and state - however, if energy is harvested from the sun, and it saves a farmer money, that is more money a farm family is able to spend locally," explains Breitenmoser, who serves on the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors.
Looking to the future, Breitenmoser who is a father of five, says for him, using solar energy is the right thing to do.
"On our farm there are plenty of places to stick money. I chose to invest in solar energy because aside from the fact that I think it's a decent investment, I did it because I have five children and I want to set a good example," Breitenmoser says.
To learn how FUE can help you finance installation of solar energy, contact Dave Velde, firstname.lastname@example.org.