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Rise and shine

Kellogg farmer harvests solar energy to power crop and hogs operations

KELLOGG — Past a series of rolling hills in the southeast corner of town is the Van Kooten family farm, split in half by a white gravel road and almost completely surrounded by lush green fields full of Iowa’s signature crops. At first glance, it looks like any other well-maintained farm in the area, aside from the breathtaking view of the countryside and the huge solar panels sequestered on the north and south sides of the property.

Arranged in four rows to the south and one long row near the north end, the solar panels power Joey Van Kooten’s entire farm, including the grain bins and fans, a machine shed and shop area, two barn buildings containing roughly 2,400 hogs each and the house he resides in with his wife and daughter. The solar modules themselves can barely be seen from the road, hidden behind barns and far enough away from the dust trails of passersby.

Solar panels were installed on the Van Kooten property in fall 2013. Acknowledging the family farm’s $1,500 to $1,600 electricity bills weren’t “going to get any cheaper,” the Van Kootens decided the solar modules might be a better fit for their farming business.

Once the panels were affixed to both sides of their property, the family was told they would require very little maintenance. Van Kooten was sold on the benefits to costs of operations over time.

“The way we looked at it on the return, in the long run, especially with solar panels having a 25-year warranty on them, it really sounded good,” he added. “Now, there is no bill. Right now, anything that’s running right now is coming off of the solar panels. It is tied to Alliant Energy’s line … It’s not cheap to set it up. But there’s great benefits to it.”

To offset the costs of installing a solar energy system on their property, the Van Kooten family received federal and state income tax credits, as well as rebates from Alliant Energy. Currently, Van Kooten said he is still making payments on the solar panels, but he has peace of mind knowing those payments will eventually end, just as his electric bills have.

When Van Kooten and his parents, Dean and Betty, first placed the solar panels on the farm, he said there weren’t many other privately owned renewable energy systems around town. Admittedly, even he was a little skeptical at first.

Since then, Van Kooten claimed a lot more folks have made the transition, noting the reductions in utility costs as a huge benefit. Farmers, by nature, have much higher utility bills.

“Now, the more you drive down the roads, you’ll see them a lot,” Van Kooten said. “Quite a few hog buildings will have solar panels by them.”

Neighboring farmer Bryce Engbers, of Grinnell, said electric costs to operate HIS farm are seven or eight times greater than the electric bills for a typical house. Engbers made the switch to solar at the same time Van Kooten opted into his system, albeit it was on a much smaller scale than the Kellogg farmer.

Van Kooten said it was “comforting” to know someone else was persuaded to install solar.

Engbers told the Newton Daily News he has one set of panels on two different hog building sites and has another set atop his house. Unlike Van Kooten, who uses net metering, Engber’s system doesn’t cover the all the costs of electricity used to power his home and farming operation.

However, Engbers does see a noticeable reduction in costs.

“I couldn’t size mine big enough to eliminate my bill completely, so I still get a fairly substantial bill every month, but we’re just cutting back on it,” Engbers said. “We just decided we wanted to try some green energy. There were a lot of incentives at the time — and still are — so it made it worthwhile to give it a try. Unlike some of the other technologies, it just sits out there, does its thing, really no upkeep and just keeps producing electricity.”

According to Solar Energy Industries Association, a net metering billing system allows customers generating their own electricity to solar power “to sell the electricity they aren’t using back into the grid,” which is why Van Kooten doesn’t see those hefty electric bills come in the mail any longer.

When customers produce more electricity than they consume during the day, “net metering allows them to export that power to the grid and reduce their future electric bills.”

Like with most things in the farming industry, there’s a fair amount of risk changing energy means. A lot of people who are not involved in farming don’t know the risks farmers have and deal with every season, Van Kooten said. Solar energy is no different, but if it could prove to be beneficial for a farming operation (If they have the space to fit them), Van Kooten said he would encourage others to follow suit.

“If it works good for their operation, then yes,” Van Kooten said, looking at the massive line of solar panels stretching as long the hog barn it powers. “But you’ll need the space to put ‘em in.”

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or

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