LIFE ON THE FARM

Solar Powered Farming

July 16, 2017

In the last newsletter, I let on that we had a big project underway and now that it's wrapped up I can describe for you the transformation that took place and why.  The big project was the installation of a 6.5 kW solar panel system at our home.  This change means that all of our electric tools and equipment will now be powered by solar energy just like our vegetables!  The 24 panel system will generate enough electricity to provide for all of our farm electricity needs, all of our tiny house power including heating, and most of our large house electricity. 

 

 

In the past decade, I have spent a lot of time researching and teaching about sustainable food production.  One problem that keeps coming up is the enormous amount of energy used in the production of food in the industrial food system.  With this mechanized model of agriculture, 10 calories of fossil fuel energy are needed to produce 1 calorie of food energy!  I have come across higher estimates than that but never lower.  I was astonished to learn that eating, something so fundamental to human life on Earth, could still be made so destructive.  

Statistics like this have fuelled our nearly fuel-less farming operation and have driven us to continue weening ourselves from energy and resource dependent practices.  There were simple things we could choose to do in year one to reduce our energy consumption such as using only bicycles for our farm transportation and working the land with hand tools instead of tractors.  However, there were still significant demands for electricity on the farm for our grow lights, walk-in cooler, fans, electric tools, and even heating at some points in the season.  Since all of these demands were served by Saskatoon's Queen Elizabeth power station which burns natural gas, our electricity use was an unsustainable practice that we needed to address.  Normally, we try to solve problems of sustainability by just getting by with less or doing more tasks with human power instead of machines, but those approaches did not seem to apply in this case.  Instead, this was one instance where adopting new technology could actually make our operation more energy efficient, so we made the leap.

 

Brian Johnston with Roots Rock Solar was responsible for our system.  We had an initial consultation a few months ago where Brian was able to determine an appropriate size and layout for the system based on our available roof space  and our previous records of electricity use. Then when it came time for installation, it all happened quite fast.  Brian and his team got the job done in a day and half and we were impressed with their attention to detail especially given the unique challenges of our uneven roof surfaces.  I wouldn't hesitate to recommend their services to anyone considering a system of their own.  

 

 

 

Photovoltaic systems have no moving parts to look after but it is kind of fun to monitor the power output.  One nice feature of this system is that each panel is installed with an inverter that measures and reports the power being generated by that panel.  We can then access this information in an online account and see how much power the system is generating each hour, day, or month.  We can even see the power generated by each panel and this ability makes it easy to pinpoint the cause of any potential problems or underperformance in the future.  We will obviously generate a lot more electricity during the summer months but thanks to the net metering program with Saskatoon Light and Power, we can still get credit for the extra power that we contribute back into the grid.    That means in winter, when there is less sunlight available, we can draw on extra credits we have built up over the summer.  The term "net zero" applies when you are generating as much power as you are using on an annual basis, so even though there will be days in winter when we draw electricity from the grid, we are now shooting for a balance of zero over the course of the year.  We will be tracking our energy use this year to see how close we can get.  Good bye electricity bills!  

 

 

Here is one more photo to show the layout of the full system.  Half of the panels are on our garage and the other half are on the back of our large house.  Because of the separation, we needed to also trench in a service line between the house and garage to connect the two systems, but the bonus of that extra work is that we can now enjoy having power in the garage.  

Now that this job is done we are looking forward to doing some more permanent landscaping in the backyard, which will focus mainly on edible perennial plants and fruit trees.  If you are wondering about the garden plot in the lot next door, yes, that is our doing.  The house there went up for sale this spring and my parents were quick to snatch it up, but that's a story for another time...  

 

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