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Harnessing the Sun in Washington County

WELLMAN, IA (CBS2/FOX28) While many farmers battle the sun, especially with drought conditions in the past two summers, some of their peers are making the sun work for them.

Washington County farmers have started to install solar panels on their farms. Solar energy is hardly a new technology, but in January of 2012, Alliant Energy started a rebate program, cutting checks for people who started using solar panels. The rebates are gone now, it was only a two year program, but it was enough for farmers to catch on and cash in.

The pungent residents in Joel Hubers hog barn make just enough noise to drown out the constant drilling just a few feet above their heads.

Theyre new upstairs neighbor is a rack of solar panels on the barns roof. It the example of the latest way in which farmers are better using their surroundings to their advantage, while preserving Mother Nature as well.

"It's environmentally friendly and you know as farmers we're the original environmentalists, said Huber.

A project like the one that he undertook with CB Solar Inc. includes panels on a few buildings around his farm and costs about $60,000.

Its a big investment that pays off.

"Now we're seeing returns of anywhere from two to six years on the farmer's investment, said CB Solar Inc.s Todd Miller.

Even without the rebates from Alliant Energy, a process called net metering helps farmers pay for the panels by letting them put energy they dont use in any given month back into the grid.

"They will give you kilowatt hour for kilowatt hour, or dollar for dollar credit on the energy you've produced, said Miller.

Over the course of a year, farmers can build up enough energy credits that they can offset months where they use a lot of electricity.

"Between all of our sites, we would probably average about $10,000 a month in electricity bills so we're hoping to offset the majority of that, said Huber.

Where rebates and net metering fall short, the state legislature is picking up the slack. Iowa lawmakers recently raised limits on the amount of tax credit available for using solar panels.

"Between the rebates and tax credits, they're what made it economically feasible versus just too expensive, said Huber

Interestingly enough, it was actually mostly failed widespread attempts to use wind energy that opened the door to a solar panel installation boom. Many farmers have installed turbines, which got them used to the idea of using alternate forms of energy. But solar panels are generally more reliable and because of advances in technology, theyre now cheaper.

There are also a series of external factors that opened the door for more solar panel installation. Over the past few years, hog farmers have been fighting off a disease that ran through their hog barns, killing about 10% of the younger pig population. That created a higher demand for pork, but also helped turkey and chicken producers pull in more for their poultry since pork became more expensive.

Now, farmers in the Washington County area have almost fully rebounded, and can now capitalize on a market price that hasnt come back down from the time when there was higher demand. Thats complimented by the fact that corn prices that are sitting at $5 per bushel (not high but not low), Miller says farmers have a little bit of extra money to put into their business operations right now.

Lastly, advances in solar technology brought the price for new panels down dramatically.

Miller says the past two and a half years have been a perfect storm for his company to sell solar panels. He says he sells a new job every day.
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