Increasingly affordable, solar technology helps two rural families embrace efficiency and self-sufficiency.
If Larry and Ann Smith's cattle could talk, they'd tell you how sunny it is at the couple's North Texas property.
The Smiths knew that a shade structure was a must for their black Angus cattle, but they also wanted to take advantage of the sun for themselves. In 2011, they topped a 25-by-32-foot steel frame with 40 solar panels.
The 10-kilowatt (kW) solar array is just the right size for their small cow-calf herd.
"They love it under here," Ann says as she walks under the solar panels and inverters, which turn the DC power produced by the panels into AC power that feeds into the electrical grid at their property. "When they're in this pasture, they'll spend most of the afternoon here."
The photovoltaic (PV) array wasn't the retired IBM engineers' first renewable energy system. Three years earlier, they had installed a wind turbine on their hilltop property outside Bowie, not far from several large wind farms. There was plenty of wind, but the changeable direction was a problem.
"The turbine would turn so rapidly that it would shut down at its peak time of operation," says Larry, a systems engineer. "Solar's a much better way to go."
Ann, a software engineer, says it didn't take long to see the improvement.
"In two months the solar array overtook what the turbine produced in 2½ years," she says.
Financed as a Capital Improvement
Before the Smiths could start saving on utility bills, they needed to invest about $60,000 in the project. The couple called up their Capital Farm Credit loan officer, Travis Thorne, who had helped them get a great interest rate on a previous loan.
The solar project was a first for Thorne, who used the Smiths' equity in their property to fund a capital improvement loan.
"We loaned them everything they needed for the project," he says. "They've had so much success with solar that now they want to increase the capacity."
The Smiths have already started installing a second solar array for about half the price per watt, thanks to a dramatic drop in the technology's cost in the past few years.
They still joke with Thorne about their expensive cow shelter, but the eGauge on their laptop shows how it cut their annual electricity costs in half.
"It's very beneficial. Three or four months out of the year, we're feeding more energy into the grid than we're using," Ann says, pointing to colorful graphs of the electricity produced by the panels and consumed by the house, well pump and shop. They get credits from their utility company for the surplus, offsetting their bills the rest of the year.
Two tax benefits available at the time added to the savings: Homeowners and businesses could recoup 30 percent of the cost of a renewable energy system through a federal tax credit, and businesses could claim accelerated depreciation.
"The ag operation gives us the best of both worlds," Ann says, adding that their system has almost paid for itself.
They plan to someday add a battery backup system that will let them store solar energy for use during power outages. Until that day comes, when the grid goes down, it's lights out at the Smith place.