Farmers and Rural Business Leaders Drive Iowa’s Surge in Solar Energy

Farmers and rural business owners are among the leaders of Iowa’s recent growth in solar photovoltaics (PV). Washington County boasts the most solar installations in the state. Area legislators and Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture, Bill Northey, recently toured farm applications of solar PV in the county. The tour was the fourth in a series sponsored by the Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association, Iowa Environmental Council, and Environmental Law & Policy Center.

Stops on the tour included a 60 kW rooftop solar array on Mike Bates’ turkey farm. Solar arrays power most of his turkey operation and his grain drying. At Mike Norman’s hog farm, we saw a 184 kW rooftop solar array on nine separate livestock buildings. Other stops included a NAPA Auto Parts store in Kalona, a ground-mount PV array on the farm of Paul Reed, a rural community solar PV array established by Farmers Electric Cooperative, and multiple solar installations at the Washington County Fairgrounds. Additional solar installations were visible as the tour group travelled across the county. 

Farmers at each stop explained the economic decision to install solar and how it helps improve profitability and long-term success of a farm operation. While many costs cannot be reduced or reduced easily, such as property taxes, crop inputs, equipment, insurance, propane costs, and fuel, solar PV allows farmers to control and reduce electricity costs. Solar systems in Iowa are seeing simple paybacks of five years or less in many applications, meaning that electricity costs can be significantly lower for many years after the system is paid off. Savings from electric costs can be reinvested in other parts of the farm operation.

Iowa’s leadership in wind energy is well established, but Iowa can be a leader in solar as well. Iowa has a solar resource that is as good or better than most U.S. states and ranks 16th among states in the technical potential to develop PV – putting Iowa ahead of states like Florida, North Carolina, and Utah in solar potential. Solar is available in Iowa when customers and utilities typically use the most energy, such as during hot summer afternoons to run ventilation fans and air conditioners.

Like wind, solar offers significant job creation and economic benefits. Iowa’s jobs in solar grew from 210 jobs in 2012 to 640 in 2013 according to The Solar Foundation. Better yet, Iowa could see an annual average of 2,500 jobs over five years under a more ambitious plan to build solar. If the experience in Washington County were replicated across Iowa, many of these jobs would be based in rural Iowa as farms across the state improve operations by adding solar PV. As this solar tour proved, farmers in Washington County have added harvesting the sun’s energy to the income side of their balance sheet.

This article was contributed by Nathaniel Baer, Iowa Environmental Council, and Steve Falck, Environmental Law & Policy Center.