Spencer Pope is a poultryman who grows 800,000 broilers a year on his farm near Carthage, Miss., but for the past year he’s had another business — generating electricity from an array of 48 175-watt solar panels on the roof of one of his poultry houses.

“I’ve averaged a $250 per month saving on my electric bill,” he told participants in the Mississippi portion of the American Solar Energy Society’s annual Down on the Farm National Solar Tour. “Electricity is a pretty sizable expense for a poultry operation, and this represents a nice cost saving.

He’s so pleased with the economics of the system that he’s planning to install another 180 solar panels, which will then give him 47 kilowatts total power output.

“That’s enough to cover the entire electricity requirements of my six poultry houses,” he says.

Thanks to a government grant through the Rural Energy for America program enacted in the 2008 farm bill and a 30 percent tax credit to encourage renewable energy, Pope shaved about 50 percent of the cost of purchasing and installing the system.

“With depreciation and the TVA power purchase agreement, I expect a four-year payback on the system,” he says. “There aren’t many opportunities like that in business today.”

Will and Carolyn Hegman, whose firm, Mississippi Solar, (www.mssolar.net), sponsored the state’s solar tour, say that while solar power generation is particularly suited to poultry operations — most houses have large expanses of south-facing roof area to mount the panels — there are many potential applications for businesses.

Poultry production is a major enterprise in Leake County and several surrounding counties; a Tyson poultry plant near Carthage processes some 2.5 million birds weekly and has 2,000-plus employees.

“Poultry farming is an energy-intensive business,” says Will. “Solar can really change the life of a poultry farmer.

Could offset 10 percent of state's energy needs

“We did a study showing that if all the estimated 8,000 poultry houses in Mississippi installed solar arrays, that industry alone could offset 10 percent of the state’s electrical use from conventional generating plants.”

In Mississippi, 99 percent of all poultry houses are oriented east-west, which offers large expanses of optimum south-facing roof area on which solar panels could be installed. 

In a few areas, where there are trees or other obstacles to the sun, or in cases where the roof may not be structurally strong enough, the panels can be ground-mounted on post supports in order to get maximum sunlight exposure.

The system at the Pope farm cost $80,000 (outside the TVA territory, a system with equivalent production could cost more than twice that much); grants and rebates dropped his outlay to about $41,000. “When you figure depreciation and production into this equation, my payback on the system is 3.8 years,” Pope says.

Beyond the payback period, at today’s rates for the balance of the 25-year warranty period, the system would produce an additional return of $79,960.

None of the electricity generated by the solar panels is directly used in Pope’s poultry operation. Rather, it flows into the power grid and is purchased by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) under its Green Power Switch Generation Partners program, which was started in 2003 to provide incentives to users within its multi-state territory to adopt clean energy systems.

Under the current arrangement, Pope is paid a price about 12 cents per kWh above the rate he is charged for electricity used on his farm.

“The last bill I got, the utility paid me 23 cents per kWh for my solar electricity and I paid them about 10-3/4 cents for the electricity I purchased from them,” he says. “Right now, we’re between flocks and are using only a minimal amount of electricity on the farm, so all the power we’re generating is making money for us.”

Payments guaranteed for 10 years

Payment is issued in the form of a credit on the participant’s monthly power bill by the local power company, which meters both the power use of the business/home and the output of the renewable energy generation system. The customer is guaranteed payments for 10 years from the start of the agreement with the local power company.

All new participants also qualify for an additional $1,000 incentive to help with system start-up costs.

“With the price of electricity continually rising — energy prices have gone through the roof over the past three years, and we’d just been eating those additional costs — we see this as a way to hedge against future increases,” Pope says.

Other assistance with the cost of the system came through

the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), enacted by the 2008 Farm Bill. 

REAP offers grants and/or loan guarantees for the purchase and installation of renewable energy generating systems and for energy efficiency improvements.  Assistance is limited to small businesses and farmers & ranchers.

Projects must be located in a rural area.  REAP grants and guarantees may be used individually or in combination.  Together they may finance up to 75 percent of a project's cost.  Grants can finance up to 25 percent of project cost, not to exceed $500,000 for renewables and $250,000 for efficiency.  There are also REAP grants to help pay for technical assistance on energy projects. 

In addition, REAP has several special grant funds that can share part of the cost of energy audits, feasibility studies, and other technical assistance that help farmer, ranchers, and rural small businesses successfully undertake rural energy projects.

Key eligibility criteria include being a rural farm or small business and having projected costs that meet the minimum grant amount of $2,500 (Pope received just under $20,000 for his installation).

The project also took advantage of the 30 percent federal renewable energy tax credit and the solar equipment is depreciated as farm equipment, using the modified accelerated cost recovery system (MACRS) in the IRS tax code.

Major hailstorm didn't damage panels

How sturdy/ weather-resistant are the solar panels in terms of damage by strong winds and/or hail?

“Three months ago, we had the worst hailstorm anyone here could ever remember,” Pope says. “It was unbelievable — three-inch chunks of ice falling from the sky. There was absolutely no damage to the panels. They’re designed for a 90 mph wind load, and as firmly as they’re anchored, a windstorm would pretty much have to demolish the poultry house in order to dislodge the panels.”

Today’s panels have excellent longevity — even after a quarter-century of exposure to the elements, they’re expected to continue producing at 80 percent of rated efficiency, Pope says

He can monitor, from any computer or smart phone, the operation of each solar panel in real time — how much power the panel is producing, if there are any issues with the panel or inverter, how much power the panel has produced for the year, and other key information.

He pulls up the grid for his panels on his smart phone and says with a smile, “We’ve had a really good year thus far.”

(You can see for yourself the operation of his solar array at www.schoolsonsolar.com; click on “Energy Production,” then “Poultry Farm.” You can also see similar displays for the Northwest Rankin School and the Hegman solar carport.)

Pope, who grew up on the poultry farm operated by his father, earned a degree in landscape architecture at Mississippi State University, and came back to the farm in 1997.

“I’m the fifth generation on this place,” he says. “It’s important to me to make this work and to do everything I can to carry on the business that I took over from my father.”