Minnesota may not be one of the top states for solar capacity, but we’re poised to have one of the largest, most robust solar garden programs in the country. It’s called Solar*Rewards Community®, and it’s a direct outcome of state legislation passed in 2013 that paved the way for small-scale solar gardens to help neighboring residents, churches, nonprofits and businesses share in the benefits of centrally located solar gardens—all without needing to install solar panels on their rooftops.
Using the same concept as an urban vegetable garden, these small-scale solar gardens are meant to bring communities together by scaling something every household needs. But instead of producing fresh cucumbers and cabbage for the dinner table, the solar gardens are meant to produce clean energy that powers the lights in our customers’ dining rooms.
How fitting, then, that Xcel Energy’s first S*RC project to come online in Minnesota rests on the family farm of Brian and Lori Vetter. Brian was kind enough to take a break from working in the fields to answer a few questions about his plans to harvest the sun.
How long have you worked on your farm? What’s the story behind Vetter Farms?
Brian: Well, I’m 55 and I’ve been farming for pretty much my whole life. My parents started our farm in the mid- to late- 50s, and since then the operation has continuously expanded. My dad, Richard, and his brother Greg were the original owners, and then my two cousins, Kevin and Tim, and I took over. Now my sons are involved in the farm as well.
What sort of crops do you grow?
Brian: We’re pretty diversified. Corn and soybeans are our main crops. We also have alfalfa and grass hay. We have a cow and calf operation and we sell the feeder calves. And then we have a farrow-to-finish operation. We have plenty of irons in the fire. I see solar as another way to diversify.
How do you think solar will affect your farming business?
Brian: With the way farming is going, it seems like you just need to grow and grow and there’s more and more competition for land. So in my opinion, it’s the person who can go and find a different alternative form of income who will stay competitive. And I think solar on our acres with lower yields is a good avenue to explore. Solar gardens are also a great method for soil conservation since the area in which they’re built is planted with grass, and it stays that way for 25 years.
Corn and beans will continue to be a viable option, but since everyone will always need to light and heat their homes, producing electricity from solar is another crop with good demand. I’m hoping this is a cutting edge deal for Minnesota and that we’ll be on the leading edge of this instead of chasing our tails.
What have you learned about solar energy during this process?
Brian: That it doesn’t take a bright, hot sunny day to produce energy. When I first thought about it, I’d say the ideal day would be 90 plus degrees on a summer day. But after researching and studying the panels, it turns out the panels also produce well on winter days, but the production per day is lower due to shorter daylight hours.
I didn’t get too involved with the technology side of the solar garden though; I was more concerned with the thought process of installing solar. My first solar project was to put panels on my dad’s house to take care of his energy needs, which will be my or my son’s future home. And my other solar project is the community solar garden. With this project I hope to alleviate some of the electrical costs for two hog barns at the site.
It’s just a good clean way to move forward by creating some of your own energy and trying to save some money. But it’s not always about money: it’s about seeing what greener solutions we can come up with to help our society and world.
It’s pretty cool you’re the first community solar garden farmer in Minnesota.
Brian: We actually started the process quite a while ago, so not to say everything went perfectly smooth. But, like you say, it’s the first one and the community solar garden program is a new thing for Xcel Energy as well. There were some questions and concerns, but now it’s up and running and we hope everything goes well moving forward.
You can learn more about Solar*Rewards Community and other renewable energy solutions available to Xcel Energy customers in Minnesota here.