Due to increasing energy costs, renewable energy policy, and decreasing cost of solar, many small farms are considering investments in solar electric to power their farms. An overarching goal for the Solar Electric Investment Analysis for Small Farms project is to increase farmers’ knowledge of solar development to guide informed decision-making with future energy investments. The project is coordinated at a multi-state level to customize and deliver professional development programing across the North-Central region. Content is delivered to local staff from Extension, Natural Resource Conservation Service, USDA Rural Development, community banks, and accountants servicing small farms. Activities include developing state specific bulletins based on the creative commons publication, Solar Electric Investment Analysis. Additionally, through webinars participants will learn about estimating solar production, system costs, value of electricity, incentives, solar financial analysis, and advanced modeling tools to simulate a solar project. The train-the-trainer approach incorporates the bulletin into six interactive webinar sessions, delivered to each target audience. During webinars, participants are engaged in hands-on-training with a solar software modeling tool developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Outcomes include the development of solar bulletins for participating North-Central states, informed participants will model a solar project and evaluate its merit on both a financial and environmental basis, trained participants gain confidence to speak to small farms about solar energy, enhancing small farm profitability and quality of life by helping farmers to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to evaluate the financial benefits and risk of investing in solar.
Renewable energy adoption has positive environmental attributes and gives many a sense of being part of a new cleaner energy future. These feelings have led to excitement for many farmers, especially small and sustainability minded farmers. Yet this project does not measure success by the number of installed projects, but instead by the number of well studied investment decisions. No two solar electric systems are exactly alike due to differences in location, tilt, shading, policy, utility requirements, insurance, taxes, and system price. For this reason it is important to model the systems to help potential solar owners take into account all the details. Farmers interested in renewable systems also have varied motivations for their systems which might include lowering the greenhouse gas footprint, becoming more independent, marketing, lower energy bills, and financial investment. The decision to install renewables should be made after considering the motivation for wanting such and installation. The balancing factor with any business will be the financial analysis and the combination of motivation combined with financial metrics will allow small farms to make better informed decisions.
Short Term Objectives
- Awareness and knowledge: Program participants will know solar energy terminology, financial metrics terminology and how to evaluate a solar array.
- Attitude and skills: Program participants will be able to model a solar array on their own and determine financial metrics like payback period, and net present value.
Medium Term Objectives
- Teaching: Program participants will use their knowledge and skills to perform solar electric analysis. Additionally, they will communicate with farmers about the attributes of a solar electric system. Teaching may come in many forms such as one on one consultations, presentations, newsletters, articles, television, and radio.
Long Term Objectives
- Change in Behavior: Small farms will consider solar investments. Small farms will perform their own evaluation or work with others to do an evaluation of the financial merits of a solar electric system. The farmers will make their decision after considering all their motivations and their financial analysis.
John Hay and Eric Romich both subscribe to the Extension philosophy of a problem-centered approach to teaching and learning that takes into account experiences of learners. As knowledge gaps are identified, research and evidence based activities are used to support the development and teaching of science-based educational programming. The development of relevant Extension programing is guided through a collaborative needs assessment assembled with input from industry professionals, state officials, and key stakeholders. To maximize program impacts and simplify the key considerations of evaluating a PV solar project, the University of Wyoming, University of Nebraska (UNL), and Ohio State University (OSU) partnered to develop a bulletin series that clarifies the information and assumptions that are essential to the financial evaluation. The bulletins are structured as a six-part series arranged to systematically progress the reader through the project evaluation process. Hay and Romich embrace a variety of teaching methods including the use of face-to-face group teaching, teaching webinar workshops, and interactive exercises using virtual meeting rooms to enhance the participant’s knowledge and awareness of energy development.
The North-Central Region is geographically large making travel across the region costly and time consuming. The use of web-based software for teaching has become commonplace and now works well for participants joining on their home or work computers, phone, tablet devices or via telephone. The Ohio State University Extension and Nebraska Extension have invested in the “Zoom” online meeting and webinar technology which works well with a variety of audiences including one on one, small group, and large group meetings and webinars. Zoom can be accessed in a variety of ways including online only, online and telephone, or telephone only making it quite versatile for nearly any audience. In addition, Zoom webinars are automatically recorded and archived for participants that want to access the presentation at a later date. During the three years of the project we plan to provide two webinars per year for a total of six webinars. Each webinar will have 4 to 6 parts and be approximately 6-8 hours in total length. The webinars will teach audiences how to perform a detailed financial analysis of solar electric projects.
To achieve an ultimate outcome of behavior change at the small farm level we need our target audience to interact with, teach, and advise farmers. To encourage and support our audience we will communicate with our audience throughout the webinar process as well as the months following. The communications will be encouraging and supporting them in their efforts to reach small farms. One method of support will be our offer to meet with any of our program participants in one-on-one online mentoring environment where we can help them master the knowledge and skills of performing solar investment analysis.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
As a strategy to control or reduce electricity costs, many small farms are considering investments in solar electric projects to power their farms. The primary objective of this project is to train and educate Extension educators, Natural Resource Conservation Service, USDA Rural Development, rural lenders, and accountants servicing small farms on best practices for conducting a solar electric investment analysis, helping farmers make investment decisions that offer the greatest overall benefit for their farm operation.
An overarching goal for the Solar Electric Investment Analysis for Small Farms project was to increase farmers’ knowledge of solar development to guide informed decision-making with future energy investments. During the three years of the project we provided five webinars. Each webinar had 4 to 6 parts and was approximately 6-16 hours in total length. The webinars taught our audiences how to perform a detailed financial analysis of solar electric projects. The webinars each include: estimating production, cost of the system, value of electricity, incentives, conducting a financial analysis, examples of solar projects and how to model a project using the National Renewable Energy Lab’s System Advisor Model (NREL SAM). Each participant gained experience modeling solar electric systems and conducting detailed financial analysis. We chose the NREL System Advisor Model because it is free software with the ability to perform a variety of solar estimation and financial analysis. Webinars were organized, planned, and taught to appeal and maximize impact of each audience.
Renewable energy adoption has positive environmental attributes and gives many a sense of being part of a new cleaner energy future. These feelings have led to excitement for many farmers, especially small and sustainability minded farmers. Yet this project will measure success not with installed solar but with well-studied decisions. Our experience has taught us that no two solar electric systems are exactly alike due to differences in location, tilt, shading, policy, utility requirements, insurance, taxes, and system price. For this reason, we began modeling the systems to help potential solar owners take into account all the details. Farmers interested in renewable systems also have varied motivations for their systems which might include lowering the greenhouse gas footprint, becoming more independent, marketing, lower energy bills, and financial investment. The decision to install renewable should be made after considering the motivation for wanting such and installation. The balancing factor with any business will be the financial analysis and the combination of motivation combined with financial metrics will allow small farms to make better informed decisions.
Short Term Outcomes
- A summary of comments from program evaluations indicated participants were highly satisfied with the webinar series. In general, participants indicated the professional development series was very informative, provided adequate detail, and the concepts were explained very clearly.
- A total of 29 program participants indicated they intend to download the system advisor model to conduct solar modeling simulations for farmers they work with.
Medium Term Outcomes
- Program evaluation and survey data indicates 79 percent of workshop participants plan to communicate the skills, and resources from this program with farmers to help them evaluate a solar electric system on their farm.
- Combined, participants of the solar electric investment analysis webinar series estimate they will share the information and resources from this program with 7,123 farmers through future group programming.
- Combined, participants of the solar electric investment analysis webinar series estimate they will share the information and resources from this program with 2,267 farmers through future one-on one (individual) consultations.
- Survey data indicates program participants estimate they will share the information with an average of 170 farmers per participant, suggesting resources from this professional development series could reach 97,920 farmers.
Long term outcomes
- Program evaluation and survey data from our webinars reported about the actions of program participants and the farmers they have advised. Program participants indicated farmers they consulted have taken action on solar decisions with 124 farmers installing systems, 252 receiving quotes, 272 planning to take action soon, and 14 that decided solar was not right for them.
Educational & Outreach Activities
The webinars had a positive impact with 1,306 registered participants from 15 different states, including 10 states from the north central region. Combined, 81% of the program participants suggested the webinar series was valuable to them including 64% who were “extremely satisfied” and 17% that were “somewhat satisfied.” In addition, when asked to place a dollar value on the new knowledge learned from the webinar, several participants suggested a $1,000 value, while the combined average value was $488. Participants were offered the opportunity to share additional open-ended feedback on the program. A summary of the comments includes:
- “Learning that there’s a lot more than simple payback when calculating actual ROI.”
- “I liked everything about the series. It was all very good, but the section regarding the true cost of the system (insurance, financing, taxes, etc.) was very good & I have already used it. The NREL SAM was great.”
- “The concepts were explained very clearly.”
- “[I liked most] Detailed economics was really good. I appreciated your insights on making sure when looking at quotes you are comparing apples-to-apples.”
- “[I liked most] Level of detail”
- “I liked the fact that you sent out the recorded link. I had conflicts in my schedule with the live program.”
- “[I liked most] The knowledge of the presenters and that we will have access to material for future reference.”
- “Resources provided and the speakers were very knowledgeable.”
- “I liked that it was recorded, and I could listen to it at the best time for me.”
- “Easy to follow even though some of the content was a little above my head.”
- “Gave me resources to consult when I am ready to start my project.”
- “Very well done with good user resources.”
- “Very well done and comprehensive.”
- “Thank you for all your time and effort. The program was very informative and could be used in training new employees in USDA RD REAP.”
- “I thought it was sad that more people weren’t on each of the sessions & gaining the knowledge. It was very good information.”
- “Thank you for putting it together and breaking it up in multiple sessions so that I was able to attend.”
- “I have only listened to 3 out of the 5 webinars but the knowledge I acquired is fantastic!”
- A lending officer who participated in our May 2019 solar webinar series indicated he was working on a loan for a client that was considering installing solar on six rental properties. He shared the resources from of our workshop and used the System Advisor Model to simulate the production and net present value.
- A lending officer who participated in our February 2019 solar webinar series indicated he had a customer interested in a sizable farm solar installation for their grain drying system. He sent the farmer a copy of our workshop materials and our contact information. The farmer followed up with us to finalize a simulation model and generate a 25-year cash flow table. The farmer has since contracted to build a 25-kW system on his farm.
- “I have taken this knowledge and incorporated it into a webinar on solar energy for homeowners. I modeled a solar array for two different real-life homes and used the information from the model to talk about a bunch of questions to ask yourself before choosing to go solar, including cost analysis. The webinar had over 80 participants. I am grateful to the speakers for providing this training – as an Extension Educator, it helped me feel more confident in providing programming on solar for homeowners.” Extension Educator IL.
- “I plan on using the resources to consult farmers on investing in a PV solar system in the future.” Extension Educator NE.”
- One farmer who attended the Summer modeling workshop pursued solar for their small Michigan farm. They shared with us the value of the workshop “We would not have been able to evaluate the quotes as effectively and would not have been as comfortable making a decision if it had not been for your class.”
- Solar Economic Analysis article and videos published in the On Pasture newsletter which reaches 100,000 reader per month.