We also use solar energy preserved in the form of fossil fuels. Electric energy consumed in Iowa is primarily generated by burning coal. The burning of coal generates CO2, a primary contributor to global climate change.
At One Step at a Time Gardens, our commitment to sustainability has included a critique of the fossil fuel energy we use in our farming operations and an investment in alternative energy systems that fit our use.
We started by asking ourselves, how can we reduce our farm's contribution to greenhouse gases? This question has challenged us to look at everything from how far we travel to market our products, to an analysis of our on-farm energy use, to making a decision in 2012 to invest in renewable energy on the farm.
Like our name suggests, we haven't made changes overnight, it's come ... one step at a time.
We began dreaming of using renewable energy many years ago. Our research pointed to solar as the best fit for our usage. Solar power peaks through the summer as does our demand for energy as we start young plants, crank up coolers and freezers, and irrigate our fields. Wind peaks spring and fall, but not in the summer as a general rule. Tim's keeps thorough records of our energy use, and with help from tools on the Iowa Energy Center, has analyzed our renewable energy options. We also wanted a system with no ongoing maintenance - solar fit the bill on both accounts. At that time, photovoltaic (PV) panels were very expensive, creating an estimated payback period of 50 years. Ouch! We waited.
Any investment in renewable energy, goes wise counsel, should first be backed by making your systems as efficient as possible. Starting in 2012, we began participating in Practical Farmers of Iowa's On-farm Energy project. Through extensive study of our energy consuming equipment - from coolers and our freezer to grow lights to irrigation, we assessed where the biggest energy draw was; the outside cooler was the main culprit. Through analysis, we determined the cycling of the interior fans appeared to be using more energy than necessary due to their pattern of operation. With a fairly simple change in that cycling system, we saved nine percent of our annual energy use!
The price of solar PV panels has come down dramatically since 2012. That same year, we began a conversation with Steve Guyer and Michelle Wei, of GWA International, a certified solar system design and installation team from Altoona, IA. Michelle wrote a grant to the USDA REAP (Renewable Energy for Agriculture Program). That did not get awarded in 2012, but we did go ahead with a scaled down version of the project as part of a new house construction project. We were able to resubmit the application in the 2013. That fall we received news that we were awarded the grant. The grant covered 25% of the purchase and installation cost of our solar generation project.
May 2014 we brought the second, and larger, of our two arrays online, more than doubling our ability to capture the sun to power the farm.
Given the supply the arrays are generating, we also invested in an electric energy powered system to get our products to and from the field. Our electric golf cart hauls our crew and a trailer that we stock with our starts and other supplies for planting. During harvest, the cart and trailer system haul all of the farm's bounty back to the wash station.
You can visit HERE to see a chart of our system's generation on an hourly, daily, and monthly basis.
Now, as we turn on the lights to start our plants, crank up the coolers for the season, add the freezer when the first batch of chickens need to be stored, we know that the majority of the energy powering these systems, like that powering our vegetables in the field, is coming directly from the renewable powerball in the sky ... the sun!