Solar panels provide electricity to grain bins

Solar panels provide electricity to grain bins on a farm in Galatia, Ill., owned by John Patterson. Patterson is one of many farmers in the state who are opting for solar power, assisted by state and federal incentive programs.

Illinois farmers seeking government incentives for switching over to renewable energy may have to wait in line.

The Adjustable Block Program, which is referred to as Illinois Shines, provides partial reimbursement for installation of solar panels. But the fund has already run dry.

“There was pent-up demand without a consistent incentive program. We’re seeing that now,” said Shannon Fulton of Bloomington-based StraightUp Solar. “That incentive is over-prescribed by 2.7 times.”

StraightUp Solar — one of many businesses in the state that installs solar-power systems — has grown exponentially as more and more landowners are embracing renewable energy.

“Our company has almost doubled in size in the past year in response to the industry growth,” Fulton said. “(Losing incentives) is something we worry about as a company, having hired more people.”

The Illinois program has become so popular, the state was forced to establish a lottery system for those opting to take advantages of energy credits to install solar power.

Dave Steward, who farms near Kenney, Illinois, in DeWitt County, is one of the winners. He had solar panels installed in January. His system will power everything on the farm, including his home.

“The credits were the main reason I did it,” said Steward, who had panels installed by Effingham-based Tick Tock Energy.

He said that, on average, the system pays for itself in about six years for residential customers and just three or four years for farms. In addition to his home, his system will provide electricity for machines in his shop and five grains bins.

“I’ve been known to have a $600 electric bill in October,” Steward said. “I’m hoping we can kick into that a notch.”

The incentives are drawn from a pool of money collected from a levy on electric bills. There is an annual total of $240 million for all renewable energy incentives, according to Peter Gray of the Illinois Solar Energy Association.

“Illinois has been attracting a lot of interest from consumers, agricultural operators and renewable energy businesses,” Gray said.

John Patterson, who produces corn and soybeans on a farm in Galatia, in Saline County, put in a solar-power system on the farm two years ago. He is optimistic about getting his investment back but is not sure how long it will take.

“I’m hoping for the best,” he said. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take to pay off. There are so many unknowns out there, like what kind of maintenance we’re going to encounter.”

Renewable energy incentive programs are doing their part in increasing employment in the state. Gray said that 1,300 jobs were added last year in the industry.

“They’re creating jobs. The goal with this bill is to keep that momentum going and to make sure we have the right size program to meet the demand out there,” Gray said.

The Path to 100 Act was introduced this year to address increasing demand for solar and other renewable energy in Illinois. The ambitious plan calls for a gradual path to 100 percent renewable energy in the state.

Existing policy requires that 16 percent of energy generated in the state be from renewable sources by 2020, and 25 percent by 2025. But under current progress, Illinois will reach only 7 percent by 2020, according to wording in the bill. Gov. J.B. Pritzker is on board with the act.

“It really is a response to the need for a sustainable industry growth,” Fulton said of the proposed legislation — Senate 1781 and House bill 2966. “The incentive program that opened in January was expected to last for several years. Due to tremendous interest, it closed for a few categories. Essentially, there are no incentives left. That’s a bill that we are really in support of.”

There are other incentives outside of Illinois programs. They include the Renewable Energy for America Program. Operated through USDA Rural Development, REAP and other federal programs provide a mixture of matching funds and tax credits for installation of solar panels and other renewal energy infrastructure.

“We’re seeing paybacks for farmers in particular who can also monetize the federal tax credit and depreciation,” Fulton said. “We’re seeing paybacks in four years.”

Patterson likes the idea of reducing carbon emissions. He might have moved toward solar anyway, but the incentives made the decision easier.

“Energy conservation and efficiency is clearly the wave of the future,” he said. “The incentives were a bonus.”

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.