Solar power case study: Black Star Farms

Farm reduces energy expenses with a combination of solar power and energy efficiency practices.

Figure 1. Solar arrays positioned by the petting zoo and livestock area. Photo courtesy of Al Go.
Figure 1. Solar arrays positioned by the petting zoo and livestock area. Photo courtesy of Al Go.

When farmers were asked at the 2016 and 2017 Powering Michigan Agriculture Conference to rank the factors they would use when deciding to implement a renewable energy or energy conservation project, they said return on investment was their most important consideration. Many farms throughout Michigan have completed a renewable energy assessment or certified agricultural energy audit and used the information to make investment decisions regarding a renewable energy project and/or energy efficiency practices. One such farm is Black Star Farms.

Black Star Farms is a unique wine and culinary destination located near Suttons Bay, Michigan that includes a luxury inn, event spaces, a farm-to-table cafe, a distillery and an equestrian facility. Over 300 acres of grapes are carefully crafted into award-winning wine. The winery itself is a co-op owned by five different partners and sells 30,000 – 35,000 cases of wine every year. The farm also maintains a qualified forest management program and some agrotourism through their petting zoo.

The solar energy project implemented at Black Star Farms was a fixed, ground-mounted solar array with a vibrated I-beam structure including a single array of 204 260 W modules for a total of 53.04 kW. It was installed by Harvest Energy Solutions, implementing SolarEdge optimizers and inverters. The solar field, consisting of three physical structures, was positioned next to the on-site petting zoo with an overall footprint of 7,232 square feet (64 by 113 feet). The system was designed to offset 90% of annual energy usage for the nearby wine tasting room. Cherryland Electric Cooperative commissioned the system on November 1, 2015.

When electricity production exceeds farm use for the day, the excess production is banked on the farm account and can be used at a future date, but they only get a $0.06/kWh credit on their bill for it. That excess electricity production can also be sold to Cherryland Electric at $0.02/kWh. Given these scenarios, the take home message is that it is best to match solar system production to daily consumption to attain the best value received for the electricity produced given current Net Metering guidelines in Michigan.

The total cost of the solar power system was $201,443, but with additional costs for the grant application, service upgrades and permits, the total cost amounted to $219,701. Black Star Farms received a total of $92,145 in external funding – $47,762 from a USDA Rural Development REAP grant, $25,000 from the Michigan Farm Energy Program, $14,469 in Cherryland Electric Capital Credits and $4,914 in rebates from Cherryland. The project was financed with an initial company contribution and a seven year loan from GreenStone Farm Credit Services. Overall, the project payback period was calculated to be nine years.

Black Star Farms conducted a company-wide energy audit in 2015 (contact Al Go about energy audit options and funding) and has implemented many energy and cost-saving initiatives since then, such as converting luminaires to LEDs and installing high efficiency boilers in their winery. The managers highly recommend that other farmers conduct an energy audit to start reaping the benefits of improved energy efficiency.

The managers state that the process of completing the solar power project was seamless from start to finish. Though they had never installed a solar energy system before, they had put time into comparing different contractors and systems to determine the best fit for their farm. They state that their utility, Cherryland Electric Cooperative, was excellent to work with throughout the process in terms of availability and willingness to answer questions and come up with solutions. The managers also appreciated the funding provided by GreenStone who they stated was an excellent agricultural lender especially in terms of sustainable energy. While the managers emphasize that they implemented this renewable energy project for the environmental and economic benefits, they’ve noticed an additional benefit in the form of positive feedback from customers.

A full specification sheet of the solar energy system as well as an aerial view of the system and surrounding property, monthly data of actual and predicted electricity production and the solar energy system cost breakdown can be accessed in the Black Star Farms Case Study. Monthly production data for 2017 will be included in the updated version of this case study by the end of the year.

This information is for educational purposes only. Reference to commercial products or trade names does not imply endorsement by MSU Extension or bias against those not mentioned.

Source: Thelen, Jackie and Go, Al (2016). Solar Energy Implementation Case Study - Black Star Farms. Michigan Farm Energy Program. Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824.

Additional articles in this series:

Solar power case study: King Orchards Fruit Co. LLC

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