When the owners of Harmony Fields in Bow built a barn for their sheep last year, they saw it as a long-term investment.

Installing a solar panel array atop the barn fit into that investment plan, co-owner Jessica Gigot said.

“We wanted to save on (electricity) costs because we would be running a lot of equipment, and we wanted to make sure we were generating something,” Gigot said.

At the 10-acre farm, solar energy powers the electric milking and feeding equipment inside the barn, and the creamery where cheese is made. When the system produces more power than is used, the electricity is fed into the grid and Harmony Fields receives a credit from Puget Sound Energy on its power bill.

Gigot said the goal was to make the small farm as efficient and sustainable as possible.

Tax incentives and grants have helped farms and businesses such as Harmony Fields install solar energy systems. But those incentives are gradually being reduced.

There is currently a 30% federal tax credit for solar, wind, fuel cell and geothermal systems, according to the Congressional Research Service.

In 2020, the rate will drop to 26%, and after 2021 it will go away for residential systems, and drop to 10% for commercial systems, said Guy Knoblich, founder and general manager of Banner Power Solutions, a solar installer based in Burlington.

Rates are also dropping for the state’s solar energy incentive.

“Incentives have gone away over time, and now is the best time to buy (solar),” Knoblich said.

Future of solar incentives

With the current 30% federal tax incentive, a property owner can deduct $9,000 on their taxes if they purchase a $30,000 solar energy system, Knoblich said.

The state has an incentive program for residential, commercial and community solar projects through June 2021, according to the Washington State University Energy Program, which oversees the program.

The incentive pays up to 50% of the price of a system.

But the program has a $110 million cap on projects throughout the state, and most of that money has already been awarded, WSU Energy Program Director Todd Currier said.

“The Legislature this last (budget) cycle did not make additional tax credits available for solar,” he said.

This year, however, lawmakers voted to re-introduce a sales tax exemption for solar panels, he said.

While both state and federal incentives are declining, Currier said he believes solar has gained momentum over the past 15 years.

“We hoped the incentive program would catalyze industry to be able to sustain itself,” he said.

Knoblich said the price of solar panels has also dropped, driven by increased demand.

“More manufacturers are figuring out faster ways to install,” he said. “Prices have come down quite a bit.”

Rural support

There is a grant program available to rural businesses and agricultural producers to help pay for installation and upgrades of solar and other renewable energy systems.

The grants are through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy for American Program (REAP). All of Skagit County qualifies for this program.

Its goals are renewable energy and energy efficiency, said Phillip Eggman, public information officer for USDA Rural Development-Washington State.

“We’re trying to get (businesses) to save the bottom line,” he said. “Getting rid of an old refrigerator sucking juice and money, or putting in a solar or water system that will save them money on their power bill.”

The grant pays for 25% of project costs, and loans are available for 75% of total costs.

The program has been offered since 2004, Eggman said. Since then, the USDA has made 31 REAP loans and grants to businesses in Skagit County.

“We’re really targeting that part of the state,” he said.

Randy Baird, renewable energy coordinator for USDA Rural Development-Washington State, said in an email that solar systems offer specific benefits to farms.

“A producer who raises goats or cattle may need to bring water to remote portions of their property,” he said. “Running a power line out to a remote well is likely not feasible, but pumps run by a remote solar array can help meet that need.”

Applications for rural energy grants are due twice a year, and the next deadline is Oct. 31.

An investment in solar

Other farms and businesses in Skagit County have also invested in solar.

Samish Bay Cheese installed solar panels four year ago. The panels produce about half the farm’s electricity needs, co-owner Roger Wechsler said.

“(We wanted to) lower our carbon footprint and in the long term save money,” he said. “It’s a costly short-term investment, but we think that it will pay itself back in a relatively short period of time.”

Wes Smith and Andrew Vallee of Smith & Vallee, a Bow cabinetry business and art gallery, had solar energy systems installed on three buildings two years ago.

“I’ve always been interested in green energy, in solar, and have always wanted to produce my own power,” Smith said.

The system cost about $180,000, Smith said, and was paid for by a $50,000 rural energy grant, 30% federal tax credit and a loan.

Smith said he estimates it will take another five years to pay off the loan.

“After that we’ll be our own power company,” he said.

Vallee said the business is close to using 100% solar power and has significantly reduced its energy bill.

Like Harmony Fields, Smith and Vallee also sometimes produce an excess amount of electricity.

“If the sun is shining and we’re not using power, we’re selling power back to the grid,” Vallee said.

That supplies energy to other homes and businesses in the area, Smith said.

The system requires little maintenance and is designed to last up to 30 years, he said.

Knoblich said he knows of a customer with a 45 kilowatt solar energy system who will stand to save about $150,000 over 25 years.

“You can fix the cost of your power bill so you don’t have to worry about that escalating over time,” he said.

When Bay Baby Produce opened its 55,000-square-foot processing facility for pumpkins near Conway last year, it installed a 99 kilowatt solar energy system, owner Michele Youngquist said.

“Any way you can use fewer fossil fuels and different types of energy is good for the environment,” she said. “I think everyone can do a little at a time, and if you can do it, do it.”

— Reporter Jacqueline Allison: jallison@skagitpublishing.com, 360-416-2145, Twitter: @Jacqueline_SVH

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