November 01, 2014

The Back Page

Jonathan Scoll

Of Pigs and Solar

Chances are if you have set eyes on Washington County, Iowa, 125 miles southeast of Des Moines, it has been from the window of an airplane. With 22,000 people, or roughly seven-tenths of one percent of Iowa’s total population, it is one of the state’s lesser-populated counties.

In the last election, Washington County went for Romney while the state itself went for Obama. But prairie conservatism in politics may reflect a strain of the entrepreneurship that has long marked this county as an early-adopter of new agricultural practices. It is a leader, for example, in hog production, in a state that itself is the source of more than 30 percent of all US pork. Hog raising demands considerable amounts of reliable electricity for exacting interior climate and feed manufacturing systems. So it is not surprising that it was hogs that set off Washington County’s solar gold rush of 2012.

That year, a pilot solar rebate program by Alliant Energy, the county’s principal electric utility, state and federal tax credits, rock-bottom solar panel prices, state-mandated reverse metering, and the Section 179 business deduction for equipment purchase all combined with the final catalyst: high hog prices.

It began when Ken Reed saw an ad on Craigslist one day for solar arrays. A member of a prominent farming clan whose roots in area agriculture go back well over a century, Reed broached the idea with his brother Paul of installing solar—using solar credits and the Alliant rebate—in their hog operation, as a hedge against steadily rising energy costs.

From an online worksheet, it appeared that in their case, the system would pay for itself in only a single year. Interested but cautiously skeptical, the brothers sought outside engineering and financial advice, which confirmed the vendor’s claim. They went ahead. Soon the word was out and a frenzy of solar construction by other farmers and area businesses ensued.

On March 21, 2014, Paul, Ken, and Kevin Reed and a cluster of politicians and other officials, led by Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, posed for a media photo in front of Paul’s new seventeen-kilowatt photovoltaic system. A “Washington County Solar Energy Tour” of local farms and businesses celebrated the installation of eighty-eight new solar arrays, on farms and in businesses, accounting for 22 percent of all of Iowa’s solar tax credits through 2013.

The figures for 2014 will be higher still, because, according to Reed, his own installer alone had 234 systems in development as of last December, all of which must, under the Alliant rebate program, be placed in service by October 1, 2014. The crest may have passed, however; solar panel prices have increased, and the Alliant rebate program has ended. Returns on solar investments will no longer be as dramatic.

But the wave has left behind a lasting change. Nowadays, says Reed, as you drive around his area, you don’t so much notice the farms with solar panels as you do the ones without them.

Jonathan Scoll

Jonathan Scoll is a member of the editorial board of Natural Resources & Environment.