Friday, April 13, 2012

Grants Spur Tennessee Farms to Try Solar Energy

Mike and Sharon Weesner love opening the electricity bill.
Sharon and Mike Weesner installed 120 solar panels atop a horse
barn, center, at their Hardscuffle Farm in Primm Springs, Tenn.,
with a variety of state and federal grants.

For the past seven months, they’ve watched one number climb higher and higher — the amount of money the power company will pay them for contributing energy into the grid.

Solar panels atop the roof of their horse barn are on pace to capture and convert enough sunlight to net them $7,000 this year.

“It’s always fun to open that and see (they) owe me money,” Mike Weesner said.

Solar power came to the couple’s Hardscuffle Farm, near the border between Hickman and Williamson counties, with help of grants including $19,073 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy for America Program, which boosts renewable energy projects.

In three years, the program has paid $6.5 million in grants and loans to Tennessee farms, ranches and rural small businesses, according to a report released this week. That ranks 13th among states.

The USDA report arrived as President Barack Obama spent last week touring energy production facilities throughout the country and defending his energy agenda. His advisers say the president is taking a long-term view toward energy, arguing that drilling for new oil alone will not solve the nation’s energy woes.

Of Tennessee’s 98 grants and loans, 69 have gone to solar projects, including a handful in Middle Tennessee. Local recipients include a custom saddler in Lebanon, a medical clinic in Dickson, a family-run native species nursery in Fairview and a recreational team-building center in Kingston Springs.

The Weesners care for retired and injured horses on a former dairy farm. It’s on a wooded 180 acres, reachable by dirt road and one-lane bridges that cross the back-and-forth bends of Lick Creek.

Along that stretch, most barns have seen better days — patchy roofs let sunshine stream inside.

Those same rays hit Hardscuffle’s 120 rooftop solar panels. In the coming year, they might have more. The couple is again sorting through complex government applications to apply for more money to add panels to another barn. Like the first time around, the local USDA office is assisting.

Meanwhile, a team of workers is digging wells for geothermal heating for their home, with high-efficiency LED lighting and insulation on the inside and a pair of hybrid cars parked outside.

USDA officials who toured the farm last week said they see it as an exemplary rural project.

“The new economy is built to last because it’s fueled by homegrown, alternative energy sources,” said USDA Rural Development State Director Bobby Goode.

Without government funding, few small-scale, renewable energy projects would be affordable, including the Hardscuffle solar array, Mike Weesner said.

The couple tapped three government grants that paid for about 60 percent of their $161,000 installation. Between that assistance and the power company payments, the farm will recoup out-of-pocket costs in about five years.

Similar grant combinations helped two of three other local solar projects announced last month.

A $184,000 solar system at GroWild nursery in Fairview received three grants that took care of more than $150,000.

Adventureworks in Kingston Springs, received the 25 percent maximum REAP assistance — $11,025 of a $44,1000 project. Solar panels aim to minimize impact on the environment at the recreation site, which is in an old-growth forest in a bend of the Harpeth River.

The current round of REAP funding has been somewhat scaled back, to $1.6 million for Tennessee.

Tennessee solar projects

Fiscal year Projects State rank, by number of projects Grant amount Loan amount
2009 13 22 $ 659,687 $ 841,692
2010 43 15 $ 1,694,613 $ 1,658,691
2011 42 16 $ 1,743,110 $0
Total 98 16 $ 4,097,410 $ 2,500,383


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