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Solar Power For A More Sustainable Spud

Solar power is popular on off-the-grid dairies trying to cut down their carbon footprint. And on sprawling ranches where it’s easier to put up a panel than to connect to the grid. But in the Northwest, most of these projects generate very little energy.

In Oregon’s Klamath Basin, conventional, commercial farms are trying out solar on a new scale.They think it could be good for their business.

Amelia Templeton / OPB

It’s a spring day on Walker Brothers farms in the Klamath Basin. In a few weeks, sprinklers will spread the water from this irrigation ditch over a new crop of potato plants. Red-winged blackbirds sit in cattails along the canal. One bird spots a better perch. It lands on a long stretch of solar panels.

Lexi Crawford: “This panel set here will help with powering this irrigation pump.”

That’s Lexi Crawford. She helps manage Walker Brothers Farms. It’s a conventional farm that sells about half its potato crop to Frito Lay. This spring she’s been in charge of filling out the paperwork for five new sets of new solar panels. And figuring out where to put them.

Lexi Crawford: “This is where the Pacific Power meter connects to our irrigation pump. And from the looks of all the labels it looks like that’s where all the solar circuits are running as well. All the outputs and voltages.”

This farm uses electric power to maintain water pressure in many of its irrigation pumps and sprinkler systems. The farm’s potato storage and packing sheds also need electric power. It adds up to more than you might guess.

Lexi Crawford: “We looked at numbers from 2009 and our power bills were about $200,000 for the year.”

Amelia Templeton / OPB

A big machine is running seed potatoes along a belt so workers can sort and size them before they are planted.

Daniel Jepson helps monitor the quality of the potato crop on this farm. He says potatoes need a lot of irrigation. And they need to be treated gently and kept cool after they come out of the ground. All that takes electricity.

Daniel Jepson: “It’s an intensive crop. For example, when we put them in the cellars we have to supply fresh air continually, otherwise they’ll actually use up the oxygen in those piles and literally suffocate. The cells begin to die and you’ll have a potato that has a black heart. ”

When the farm’s solar panels aren’t powering pumps or cooling potatoes, they feed energy back into the grid. And that shows up as a credit on their utility bill. Not only that, but Walker Brothers gets paid a high rate for the solar energy they feed into the grid. And they pay a lower rate for the electricity they take from it.

Tricia Hill is a member of the Walker family and a partner in the business. She says her dad has spent years researching solar power options for the farm.

Tricia Hill: “His desire to, you know, install solar panels comes from that wanting to drive down cost, wanting to be on the cutting edge. We have a lot of sunshine days in Klamath County so it makes sense as something to look at to control cost.”

Walker Brothers expects its credit from solar power to offset up to 40 percent of its utility bill. That may not sound like much. But this project is about 100 times larger than the average on-farm solar project in the Northwest.

About 600 farms in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho have installed solar panels. But not many of them use solar power to cut down their electricity bills. Instead, they’re using small arrays to generate power in remote places. Picture a pump that draws water for cattle out on the range.

Amelia Templeton / OPB

“Every day I was traveling, uh, three or four miles on a back road to run a generator. So I looked into the investment of solar.”

That’s Gary Wright. His cattle ranch is about ten miles down the road from Walker Brothers potato farm. He says small solar-powered water pumps have saved him labor and created a little oasis.

Gary Wright “It’s direct sunlight and when the sun shines it pumps. It’s actually for wildlife also. We have chukars and deer and antelope that use it.”

The water on these farms and ranches comes from the Klamath River system. Gary Wright used to be able to use as much as he needed. His power was cheap too, thanks to a fifty-year contract.

Times have changed. Threatened salmon need cool, clear water flowing in the Klamath River in the summer. So in dry years less water is available to irrigate these farms.

Power is more expensive, too. As these changes happened, Wright drilled a lot of wells. And he considered using solar power to pump all his water.

Gary Wright: “I couldn’t afford the investment. It was over $3 million.”

Wright thinks it could be a good investment. But he’s not sure he’ll be around long enough to see it pay off.

Gary Wright: “That’s a young man’s venture. and I don’t think I want to step into a $3 million investment whether I have some grants or not to go with it.”

Wright may have dropped the idea of a solar powered ranch. But other farmers in the Klamath Basin have asked for federal funding to help bring more renewable energy projects here.