The Solar Farmer

Alvin Kunugi has a love-hate relationship with the sun, and it just got more complex. A farmer in San Luis Valley, Colorado, Kunugi’s plants harvest the sun’s energy and turn it into stored energy in the form of calories. But the sun in the valley is a little too much.

It’s actually one of sunniest places in the U.S.—and forces him to spend 15,000 dollars a year on energy for irrigation. 

The irrigation works with a central pivot. These plots look like large green circles from the sky. But roads in the prairies create a checkerboard. The result is four unfarmed corners on each checker, which provide amazing space for harvesting the sun in another way: with solar panels.

Kunugi, as well as five other farmers, recently each had a 10 kilowatt (kW) photovoltaic (PV) solar system installed on their property. In the summer months, most of the energy generated from these systems will go to the farmers pivot irrigation and in the winter, it will go to the pool of electricity in the grid.

Jack Gilleland is another one of these farmers. He pays $8,000 a year to power his irrigation system and will see that number cut in half with his PV system. “The best part is I’ll save money by producing my own green power from the sun,” he says.

The project will save the farmers money for three main reasons. The first one is a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture managed by the local Resource Conservation & Development (RC&D). The second is a $4.50 buy down per watt from Xcel Energy, the local utility. The last part of the equation is a federal tax credit of up to 30% of the upfront costs for a business such as a farm.

But money will only make a project work with the right people. The main driver was Jim Mietz from the San Luis Valley RC&D. While others talked about the possibility of such a project, Mietz went ahead and initiated it. He also received help from Ravi Malhotra who works with iCAST, a non-profit that partners with communities to bring appropriate technology to the people who need it.

iCAST helped with the project design, development of the bid and managed the proposals to eventually pick the best bid, which ended up being Direct Water and Power Corporation. The company is installing the PV systems at the six farms, one of which includes Paul Newbenefit’s.

Newbenefit is excited about the experience he, and the other farmers, will gain noting, “if we can learn something from it and encourage the solar industry, we’ll be happy… we are at a fantastic place for solar and we will [all] benefit.”

American producers like Kunugi, Gilleland and Newbenefit are joining the renewable energy revolution. The fact is they have good access to renewable resources like solar or wind energy. It’s usually just a question of ironing out the details and that’s where organizations like iCAST come in.

This all leads to greater energy autonomy where we work with the forces of nature, farming the sun that just comes back every morning. As Kunugi says, “I just wish I could have gotten into it in a bigger way.”

Raphael Shay is the Outreach Coordinator at iCAST, where he bridges iCAST’s projects with the people who need them most. iCAST is a Denver, Colorado based organization that facilitates appropriate technology, business, and infrastructure development projects.

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