Government cash makes it a sunny day for solar power

Growing Forward 2 has put extra dollars on the table, but they’re expected 
to be snapped up in a hurry

The 200-kilowatt array on Nelson Family Ranches is big enough to supply electricity to both its feedlot operation and irrigation pivots.
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If you want to get into solar, there’s now more government cash on the table — but you’ll have to hurry.

The On-Farm Solar Photovoltaics Program now offers 75 cents per watt for projects of 100 kilowatts or less, and 56 cents per watt for installations that are between 100 and 150 watts. Both have maximum amounts for government funding (35 per cent and 27 per cent of project costs, respectively) and the installations have to be tied into a power grid.

Interested producers need to start the application process ASAP, said Diana Bingham, on-farm stewardship co-ordinator with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

“The current programs associated with Growing Forward 2 — and the whole Growing Forward 2 program — comes to an end March 2018 so all of the systems we fund have to be installed, complete, and operational by February 2018,” said Bingham.

“I’ve been telling guys they need to get their applications in well before the end of December if they want to have a chance. But we may have to close earlier as our funding is limited.”

There’s a good chance there will be a rush to take advantage of the cost-sharing program.

More and more Alberta farmers and ranchers — especially if they are significant power users — have run an economic rule over solar power and liked what they saw.

That was the case at Nelson Family Ranches, which has cow-calf, crop, and gravel-crushing operations near Stirling, southeast of Lethbridge. It recently had a large, 200-kilowatt grid-tied solar photovoltaic system installed.

“I’ve just always been interested in solar so I crunched the numbers on it and it looked like a pretty decent payback,” said Josh Smith, chief financial officer of the sixth-generation family farm.

“What we wound up doing was leasing the solar panels from Enmax for 15 years and at the end of the lease we own them. They take care of any problems in those 15 years. If there are issues they deal with that and they monitor it. It’s pretty cool.”

Josh Smith (on left) is the CFO of Nelson Family Ranches. Other family members in the operation are (from left) Shawn Nelson, Kevin Nelson, Grant Nelson, Jeff Nelson, and Jimmy Nelson. The five of them manage the farm with feedlot manager Mike Smith. Josh credits his father-in-law Grant, who has turned the farm over to the next generation, for being an advocate of diversification. photo: Nelson Family Ranches

In a grid-tied system, producers get a credit for feeding power into the grid when they have more than they can use. Those credits are used to pay for power drawn from the grid on days when they need a lot of power, or when it’s cloudy and their solar system isn’t generating enough electricity.

That was the option best suited to the needs of the ranch, said Smith.

“We need electricity when we need it, so we didn’t want to rely 100 per cent on our solar,” he said. “But over the course of a year, (solar) will produce all the electricity we need for our feedlot and for the irrigation pivots that grow the corn for our feedlot.”

What you need to know

The first step for interested producers is to obtain written verification from their energy retailers of the distribution rate class for the site ID on which the system will be installed. This information can sometimes be found on utility bills. The distribution rate class determines whether an applicant applies to the On-Farm Solar Photovoltaics Program or the Residential Commercial Solar Program.

“Even if the applicant doesn’t understand what the rate class is, all they have to do is send that document to myself and I will be able to tell them what the rate class is and which program they need to apply to,” said Bingham.

Rate classes are not always obvious and that’s why it’s important to know this information before proceeding, she said.

“They might be a farm right now but they might be classified as something different depending on what they’ve operated as before, whereas a non-farm rural residence might still be under a farm rate class because it was previously a farm.”

Interested producers will also need to find a solar contractor to help them source equipment and install the system. The solar contractor must be listed on the Solar Energy Society of Alberta website in order to be eligible for funding.

“It’s not difficult for a contractor to get on that list but they do have to be registered,” said Bingham.

Getting a good solar contractor is Smith’s No. 1 piece of advice. He praises his own contractors — Solar Optix of Lethbridge — for guiding him through the process. He doesn’t recommend producers attempt to install a grid-tied solar photovoltaics array by themselves.

“I wouldn’t even consider doing it myself and we’re pretty crafty,” said Smith. “There are 50 employees who work on our operation and we have all sorts of mechanics, electricians, and plumbers.

“But this is a specialized thing. I don’t think you should do it all by yourself. You need to have somebody.”

Producers also need to apply for a grid-tied microgeneration agreement with their local electrical utility (which is formally called a Wire Service Provider). “This program isn’t designed to fund commercial production of solar energy,” said Bingham. “The intent is for the system to be grid-tied and it really only needs to supply enough energy to deal with the peak energy use of that operation.”

A recent bill for one month’s electricity is also required as part of the application, as well as a quote for the solar photovoltaics equipment they intend to install.

Finally, don’t go out and buy any equipment before your application is approved.

Along with aligning the On-Farm Photovoltaics Program with its residential and commercial counterparts, a major change was to end the funding of solar pro­jects retroactively.

“The biggest thing we have to get across to as many people as possible is that we do not cover retroactive projects,” said Bingham. “Applicants have to apply and be approved before they buy anything.”

Bingham encourages interested producers to keep track of program developments in case funding runs out sooner than expected. The easiest way to do this is to subscribe to receive program announcements on the Growing Forward 2 website.

“If we need to close early we’ll put it on the website right away and they will receive an email notification,” Bingham said.

To contact for inquiries about the program, email [email protected].

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