Royalton farm reaping higher benefits from solar panels
by Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Doug Popp moved with his family to a farm west of Royalton in 1975. He and his wife, Jane, married in 1993, are now raising their two children, Emily and Nicholas, on that farm — and conscientiously seeking to make the best decisions for how to power the farm.
Living on a windy hill on the west side of the Mississippi River, it was natural for them to think of wind energy as an attractive alternative. Doug had attended a University of Minnesota (U of M) workshop near Morris in 2004, but was frustrated with the emphasis on “big wind.”
Doug then learned of someone in Avon who deals with “small wind.”
“Joe Straley sells and installs wind turbines,” said Doug. “He put up the turbine at the Morrison County Fairgrounds. He referred us to other farmers.”
The Popps visited four to five wind turbine locations in Morrison and Stearns counties. A 70-year-old gentleman near Albany has two of them.
“I asked him why he put up the second one,” Doug said. “He told us he was investing in the environment and in his grandchildren, that it was the most trouble-free piece of equipment he has.”
That was the turning point for the Popps. They found a used tower that is actually stronger than newer ones, as it is made of thicker metal.
“Everything else, the blades, the inverter and the generator are new,” said Doug.
Following the first full 12 months of use, completed in December of 2007, the 20 kilowatt turbine provided a 25-30 percent reduction of the Popps’ electric bill.
“The benefit has been within the range of what Joe predicted,” Doug said.
After getting settled in with their alternative wind energy, the Popps were asked by Doug’s cousin, Loren, if he could do a solar assessment for a class he was taking at St. Cloud Technical College.
That got them thinking about utilizing solar energy in addition to wind, but they pondered hard whether to go down that road again. The process took a lot of concentration the first time around.
“Loren’s friend, Scott Randall of APEX Solar in St. Cloud, asked us what there was to think about in going ahead with it,” said Doug.
Randall told the Popps that the payback would come in less than four years, but they knew that grant money is not guaranteed. They found a grant writer who knew the “hoops to jump through.”
“It’s the biggest system Scott’s ever put up,” Doug said.
The wind turbine sits in a pasture behind the Popps’ barn. The 10 kilowatt solar panels sit next to it.
The first full 12 months of solar power was completed in August.
“Scott had said we’d do better with solar in winter because of the sun’s reflection off the snow,” Doug said. “With the late spring and more snow, it was really pouring out the kilowatts. It was better than we expected.”
But it wasn’t only the reflection from snow that reaped benefits for the Popps. The solar power produced in July was twice as much as the wind energy. They found that solar outproduced wind consistently all year ‘round.
In contrasting their experiences with wind power vs. solar power, the Popps point out that the cost of wind turbines has gone up. Turbines also need someone to change the oil and grease the blades annually (based on kilowatt hours used) — something that requires climbing the tower. For them, that means hiring someone else to do the job.
But the solar panels are on the ground and they do not require maintenance. They were also less costly to install.
“It’s been more cost-effective to use the solar power,” said Doug.