Jeff Lutsey, chief engineer and farm administrator for his family’s farm—Waseda Farms in Bailey’s Harbor, Wisconsin—met Jordan Kaiser, design consultant and installer at North Wind Renewable Energy, at a sustainability fair in Wisconsin a few years ago. Lutsey’s family had been thinking about adding solar to their farm for some time and, after speaking with Kaiser, decided they wouldn’t delay any longer. They added a 50-kW ground-mount system.
Lutsey wasn’t always working on the farm, though—for most of his career after graduating from Northwestern University, he designed nuclear reactors. Solar Power World talked to Lutsey and Kaiser about Lutsey’s path to the farm and Kaiser’s help adding renewable energy to the sustainable operation.
Solar Power World: As an engineer, did you have more of a hand in the project than a farmer without that experience might have?
Jeff Lutsey: I think so. I cared about the details and probably asked more questions than normal, but I will say those guys at North Wind are the experts.
Lutsey: I had one of my favorite jobs—one of the best jobs I’ll ever have—working with a great design team on the next nuclear reactor. And I loved it, but I knew it was… there were things that I wanted that I just knew I had to kind of move away from.
Being closer to the earth, with my family, in a place that I love, made it pretty easy to make the jump, even though it was a big jump.
SPW: Having that background in nuclear, how did you start thinking about solar?
Lutsey: Me and my brothers have been kind of tossing around the idea for a couple of years. It was always a natural fit with our farm—we’re a pasture-raised farm here with our cattle, pigs and chickens.
Our whole job is really to work around both the water and the sun cycles of Earth the best we can for raising our animals as well as our produce. Every year, we go to the MOSES Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse. Two years ago at that conference, we had discussions with the North Wind folks that have a real high emphasis and focus and desire to help the agricultural industry and all the farmers in the Midwest.
We really made that commitment at the beginning of this year when we figured out all the details and how we’d get the project started.
SPW: Is the ground-mount array separate from your livestock?
Lutsey: The pastures are probably another 50 yards away—[the array is] right across from our animal handling system. We have a cool corral system that was designed and installed for the most humane handling method that we can have, and that’s right across from the panels.
Aesthetically, it’s cool to have them kind of side by side—our commitment to our animals and our commitment to the environment right next to one another. Just kind of happened that way.
SPW: Do you have any native plants around the array?
Lutsey: We don’t yet, but I have seen some of those designs and we’re brainstorming the right kind of flowers—Midwest pollinator species—around there. We’re going to end up planting a row of flowers in front of the array.
SPW: Can you talk about any specific challenges and successes you had on this project?
Jordan Kaiser: It always helps when a client has as much of a general understanding of solar and PV that Jeff and Waseda Farms had. I was able to come in and fill in the blanks with some of the more technical information about system sizing and how the process with the utility works.
I think the biggest challenges were with the system design and siting of the array—it’s a fairly large ground-mount structure—and with where the farm is located.
The soil makeup and the land itself offered many challenges. There’s a lot of bedrock up in that area. With a ground structure, usually we’re digging into the ground to set concrete piers and then obviously digging a trench to put in buried conduit.
But because of the makeup of the ground and the rocks buried—some of them weren’t even buried, you could see them protruding up through the ground—we couldn’t do those things. So we had to change the design, and we went with a ballasted structure where the concrete ballasts are actually above-ground and can weigh the array down.
In addition to that, in the original site for the array, we basically needed more room. So Jeff and his team had to clear the array location of trees, stumps, rocks and other debris to make room for the array. The communication Jeff and I had prior to that sort of work really paved the way for the installation to be successful.
Then, the array itself was quite a big distance from the interconnection point, so sizing the conductors properly and then integrating into an old farmhouse isn’t always the easiest thing, but in addition to that, the connection with the utility was somewhat challenging.
Our company is 2.5 hours away from their farm, so it was really critical to get some of these things figured out [in advance] so that my crew doesn’t go up there and there are all these issues and challenges. Jeff did a great job of asking the right questions, and we got things clarified as best we could prior to the crew even getting there, and I think it made for a fairly smooth installation.
SPW: What inverters, racking and panels did you use?
The site itself doesn’t have any shading really. But I think the true offering this particular inverter system has is the ease of design.
The optimizers play a part—especially what we’ll see in winter time. If there is snow accumulation on the array that’s maybe scattered, we’re still going to be able to harvest as much power as we can to optimize the system properly.
The racking is from S:FLEX. It’s a steel and aluminum structure—very sound, very durable, hurricane-rated. As long as the farm’s there, that array will be there.
SPW: Why should agriculture and livestock farms go solar?
Lutsey: I think it’s a natural connection to what we do as farmers, and that’s adapting and working with nature the best we can, no matter what kind of farmer you are—if you’re raising produce or if you’re raising animals that are based on pasture. No matter what you’re doing, you’re working with sun and you’re working with water the best you can.
Solar power in so many different scenarios is going to be a great way to reduce your electrical power that you’re going to need from the grid and be more sustainable to power whatever needs you have.
The fact that it’s passive and it’s the gift that keeps on giving and it’s reliable, [that means] it’s going to be good for the long-term. [It’s a] great fit for our farm and for our mission and I think it is for really any farm.
Kaiser: I would just echo a lot of that too. I think specifically smaller CSA (community supported agriculture) or organic farms who, just through their practices of farming, focus on sustainable agriculture, solar and clean energy really align with those ideals. I think that’s important, especially in this day and age, to show and represent what your values are as a business, as a farm, as a CSA, as an organic farm. I think it’s important to especially demonstrate that with investments, monetarily. And solar is a good representation of those values.
The economic benefits that it provides as well, certainly being able to control costs long-term are important, being a small business and even more so being a farm. There are a lot of costs, and in some years, a lot of loss along with that, so if you can really reign in one of your biggest variable costs—the cost of energy—it really gives you the versatility to be able to do things down the road.
Six to seven years from now, they’re going to be free and clear of 55,000 kWh that they have to pay for the utility now. So they can do a lot with that money on an annual basis: Reinvest back into themselves to strengthen their business, thereby providing their services to their community.