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Otterburne dairy is Manitoba’s largest solar-powered farm

The off-grid option has upfront costs but locks in energy costs for the foreseeable future


A southern Manitoba dairy is just days away from flipping the switch on the largest solar-powered farm in Manitoba.

Optimist Holsteins Ltd. near Otterburne is in final stages of setting up a newly installed 175-kilowatt, solar photovoltaic (PV) system. When operational it will begin producing enough power to meet all the farm’s electrical needs while earning credits to offset the farm’s hydro bills when they do have to dip into the grid.

The newly installed 540 ground-mounted, solar panels line about an acre of farmland. It puts an end to their yearly $25,000 hydro bill, says Hans Gorter who owns and operates the farm with his wife Nelleke, son Albert and his partner Chelsea Enns.

“Putting solar on the farm means I’ve prepaid my hydro bill for the next 25 years,” said Gorter.

The farm’s own investment in the system was about $250,000 with another $175,000 in rebate from Manitoba Hydro helping cover the total cost of $400,000.

Their farm’s energy requirements made it a very good fit for rebates through Manitoba Hydro’s Power Smart Solar Energy Program of $1,000 per kilowatt up to a maximum of $200,000.

“We just fell into that category where we could maximize the incentive,” said Gorter.

Hydro’s rebate was the final push they needed to go solar, he continued. Originally from the Netherlands, their family came to Canada in 1987. They’ve kept in touch with friends in Europe who regularly talk about their own switch to solar energy systems, Gorter said, but so long as hydro rates remained low in Manitoba there never was much incentive to switch themselves.

Then they met representatives of Sycamore Energy Inc.’s Solar Manitoba who had a booth at Ag Days in Brandon.

“They were telling us about Manitoba Hydro doing the rebate. I got interested. We did the numbers and we started to see that it was time to move on this,” said Gorter.

Justin Phillips, the company’s president said their firm’s main focus is on farms and agricultural businesses.

“We have over 100 farms that we’re working with to install solar across the province,” he said. That’s still a small fraction of the total farms but they anticipate a big uptake this fall after harvest.

“Ultimately, this is the only piece of equipment that a farmer’s going to buy that doesn’t break down and makes money,” he said.

Many farmers are eyeing solar power as a hedge against future electricity prices.

“They see the opportunity to help eliminate the need to be dependent on hydro and offset their hydro needs with solar,” said Phillips.

“They’re locking in their electricity rates themselves by using solar rather than succumbing to the inflation rates of Manitoba Hydro in the years to come.”

Manitoba Hydro’s offer of its substantial rebates plus the prospect of rising hydro rates ahead are the main drivers.

Manitoba Hydro is asking the Public Utilities Board for a 7.9 per cent rate hike each year for the next four years.

The PUB approved an interim increase of 3.36 per cent, with a ruling on the original hike application to come later this year.

Phillips said Manitoba is very well suited for solar energy systems due to the intensity of solar radiation here. The majority of solar energy — 85 per cent — is produced during the spring, summer and fall months, then drops down through winter when the sun is lower and the days are shorter. The surplus energy produced in the warm months on the farm is fed back into Hydro’s grid.

“In the summer months Hans will be turning his meter backwards, for lack of a better way of describing it, or feeding back into the grid, creating a credit on his account, ” said Phillips.

Gorter said he’s had many calls and inquiries from those interested to see the installation and he’s pleased to showcase a dairy farm trying to reduce its environmental footprint.

“I hope the farm community looks at this as I do,” he said. “We are in food production. We have to reduce our footprint and we have to make it sustainable for the next generation.”

Hydro has received applications for other even larger solar installations but to date Optimist Holsteins remains the largest, Hydro officials said last week.

To date 460 applications have been received, 408 approved, and 103 installations completed for a total of $1.26 million paid out in rebates.

The two-year pilot program is scheduled to end in May 2018, with no discussions having yet been held regarding continuing or expanding it further.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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