Are your energy bills increasing? You’re not alone. Over the past three years, the retail cost of electricity in the commercial sector has increased from 10.37 cents per kilowatt hour to 10.67 cents. For the industrial sector, the costs have increased from 6.91 cents per kilowatt hour in 2015 to a projected 7.21 cents in 2018. If you happen to run your business out of your home, the cost is higher: In 2015, you spent 12.65 cents per kilowatt hour; in 2018 that is expected to rise to 13.39 cents.

The figures, as reported by U.S. Energy Information Administration, don’t show a sharp climb – but each fraction of a penny adds up. And when the meter’s running for your operation, it adds up fast.

Businesses around the country are looking for alternative sources of electricity, if not to replace the main source, to supplement it. And several nurseries have already made the leap to solar.

Even Home Nursery’s daycare center is powered by solar panels.

Image Courtesy Of Home Nursery Inc.

Solar finds a Home

Home Nursery, located in Albers, Illinois, has more than 250 acres in container and nursery production, as well as two distribution centers nearby. The family-owned company produces more than 600 varieties of plants, ranging from flowering shrubs and broadleaf evergreens to perennials, grasses and groundcovers.

The grower took the plunge into solar energy a couple of years ago, and installation was completed slightly less than a year ago. We asked Ann Tosovsky, president of the nearly 100-year-old nursery, for her insight on the decision, the process and the results. Here’s what she had to say:

How did you find financial support through REAP (Rural Energy for America Program), and how involved is the process of applying for a grant?

We did some research and found this opportunity through the Department of Agriculture. We decided to hire a professional grant writer to help us through the process, although there’s no reason one couldn’t file the application on their own if they have experience in grant writing. That being said, for a minimal cost we felt it would be better for us to have someone with expertise in the area.

We started out looking at a grant potential of around $500,00, and when all was said and done, ended up at about $60,000. The competition for grants was a bit greater than we originally anticipated and because of the grant writer’s knowledge and expertise, he was able to refocus our application and concentrate on the areas with the strongest potential to receive grant money. We could have ended up with nothing. We looked at the grant money as a “bonus” as we weren’t relying on that money to fund the project.

How can other growers take advantage of grants?

The process does require some paperwork, and you should allow at least a month to gather the necessary information. The USDA publishes a spring and fall application deadline each year, with the spring cycle focused on larger projects and fall focused on smaller projects. If you go to the USDA’s website you can get more information. They even include an interactive map where you can type in your address to see if your location qualifies.

The solar energy array at Home Nursery in Albers, Illinois, ranges from rooftop to ground installation.

Your system was completed in December 2016; how long a process was it from concept to activation?

We started researching solar in fall/winter of 2015 and interviewed a few solar companies. In February we made the decision to work with StraightUp Solar out of St. Louis.

We began work on the first of our 10 arrays in mid-May and commissioned the largest 300 kW array in November. One hundred twenty to 180 days is average for a project our size, and I think we were in that target. As with any project we had a few hurdles to jump, including being required to raise the elevation of one of the arrays due to it being in a flood plain.

In your estimate, how long will it take before you see a return on your investment?

Internal rate of return is 10 percent, and payback is 5.3 years – which, after all is said and done, is pretty close to original estimates. After the five-year period, we “stop paying for electricity” for the next 45 years.

Can you briefly explain the Solar Renewable Energy Credits program? Can a participant actually realize a profit?

Renewable energy credits, or RECs, are tradable commodities that represent the green attributes associated with energy generated from renewable energy resources, such as sunlight, wind or water. One REC is generated every time one megawatt-hour (MWh) of clean, renewable electricity is produced.

Solar renewable energy credits, or “SRECs,” are simply RECs generated from solar power. RECs are valuable because some states have passed legislation requiring energy suppliers to provide a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable energy sources. This type of legislation is called a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). Under certain types of renewable portfolio standard (RPS) legislation, energy suppliers must either produce a certain amount of solar electricity or purchase SRECs in order to avoid a fine.

SRECs were an important factor when we chose to “go solar.” Over the lifetime of our SRECs we will receive over $400,000, offsetting the cost of the project by over 30 percent. After the five-year period expires, we have the option of selling our SRECs again if the market is still favorable.

We will eliminate a very large expense for our company. As you can imagine we generate a lot of electricity use in pumping 1.6 million gallons of water each day. Being able to offset that cost is a huge opportunity for us.

What advice would you give growers who are interested?

Research, research, research. There are a lot of resources out there to learn about solar production. Our industry is the perfect industry to support and use solar power and other forms of sustainable energy. Installing solar has quickly evolved into another specialized form of construction, but is not yet as established as other construction segments, so you need to be prepared that other entities that are traditionally involved with construction are less familiar with solar. Working with a well-respected company is key. They can help with the learning curve between you and other companies you’ll be working with.

Get your accountant involved. Solar tax incentive law isn’t particularly complicated, but your accountant needs to understand how solar array produces value, how those value streams flow between your local utility’s interconnection policy and the scale and duration of incentive programs, and then how they impact your company’s financial picture helping you decide to finance the project internally or through a lender.

Hire a trusted contractor. A solar design contractor can advise you on what type and size system you should install and lead your installation effort. Talk to references as you would with any major capital improvement, questioning the contractor’s workmanship, reliability, how they work with municipalities and utility companies, how responsive they are and what their warranty is. Make sure you have a good relationship, and that they will be there over the long haul, continuing to provide good service.

A working sunflower

The concept is pure genius, and the
application couldn’t be more apt.

At a lavender farm in Killingworth, Connecticut, there’s a large sunflower of sorts that works with the sun to provide the company with clean energy. Here’s the scoop from Lavender Pond Farm:

Image Courtesy Of Lavender Pond Farm

Inspired by sunflowers and other phototropic plants that follow the sun across the horizon, the SmartFlower wakes up at sunrise, fans out its 12 solar “petals” to 194 square feet and automatically cleans itself in preparation for capturing the sun’s rays. SmartFlower then turns to face the sun at a 90-degree angle, and follows the sun throughout the day using dual axis tracking to maximize solar energy yield. At night, the system automatically folds itself up for compact storage, then starts the cycle over the next morning. One SmartFlower produces the equivalent of a 4 kW rooftop system.

Thanks to its plant-inspired design, the SmartFlower takes up less space than traditional solar panels but yields 40 percent more output — up to 4,000 to 6,500 kWh per year. While there are more than 1,000 SmartFlowers installed in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, the Lavender Pond Farm SmartFlower is the first in Connecticut and only the second installed in the United States.

The SmartFlower™ solar installation at Lavender Pond Farm is one of only two currently in use in the United States.

“We are thrilled to deploy the Smart- Flower,” said Denise Salafia owner of Lavender Pond Farm. “It not only represents a long-term cost savings for our farm, but the stunning aesthetics of the SmartFlower are fully in line with our goal to try and make Lavender Pond Farm a more beautiful place.”

The purchase of the SmartFlower was funded in part by a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development Rural Energy for America (REAP) Renewable Energy System grant. The REAP program helps increase American energy independence by increasing the private sector supply of renewable energy and decreasing the demand for energy through energy efficiency improvements.

Solar energy resources

As Ann Tosovsky stated, you need to do your research if you’re considering converting to a solar energy system. The resources listed here should give you a good start.

  • This explains SRECs
  • Database of state incentives for renewables and efficiency
  • USDA. Nearly unlimited resources: type “solar power” in the search box
  • Energy Sage: Get quotes, find qualified installers

“This procurement and deployment of the SmartFlower represented a total team effort,” continued Salafia. “Without the support of our local USDA Rural Development Office and the team at the Connecticut Farm Energy Program, this project would not have been possible. Then to have the professionals from Auer Builders and All Green it Solar at our farm to do the site work and deploy the system was just a great experience from beginning to end.”

Lavender Pond Farm welcomes visitors, who can see the SmartFlower, along with more than 10,000 lavender plants on the 25-acre farm, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.

Watch the sunflower in action on YouTube.

More information about Smart- Flower Solar™ systems is also available.