Jon Peterson stands next to his solar panels on his 65-cow dairy near Peterson, Minn. He installed them earlier this year. 
Jon Peterson stands next to his solar panels on his 65-cow dairy near Peterson, Minn. He installed them earlier this year. PHOTO BY KAYLA LEIDING
    PETERSON, Minn. – Jon Peterson always has sustainability on his mind. Jon, who farms with his wife Lori, and their son, Taylor, recently installed solar panels on their 65-cow farm near Peterson, Minn. The Petersons also have 160 beef cattle and 150 ewes.
    “I’ve been thinking about this project for eight to 10 years,” Peterson said.
    Peterson chose solar panels because other renewable energy options such as wind would require more maintenance and have a higher upfront cost.
    Peterson spoke with two dairy farmers about solar panels. The people Peterson talked to were happy with the solar panels, and he trusted their thoughts and opinions.
    The planning process began at the end of February. The only permit Peterson was required to get was from the township of Rushford Village.
    “It was pretty simple,” Peterson said of the entire planning process.
    The wet spring prevented the panels from being installed right away. Once the project was underway, it only took one week to install the panels. The Petersons were able to start using their solar panels June 1.  
    Peterson looked into placing the solar panels on the roof. He decided there was not enough space on the roof, and the panels would not have been in the right direction or at the right angle.
    Peterson decided to place the solar panels in one of his paddocks. At first, he was worried the panels would take up too much of the paddock, but everything worked out because the cows can graze around the panels.
    “There’s only six feet of grass under the panels that the cows can’t reach,” Peterson said.
    Peterson had MinnSolar install the solar panels. They took care of all of the grant paperwork and planning. Peterson said he liked that there was the same person there every day installing the panels because it made it easier.
    MinnSolar installed two rows of solar panels that are 12- by 120-feet. The panels are rated at 40 kilowatts which is the maximum size they could get.
    “The kilowatts need to match the use [of your solar panels],” Peterson said.
    The total cost of the project was $120,000.
    Peterson received a rural development grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to help pay for the solar panels. The grant paid for about 15 percent of the total cost.
    Peterson plans to have the panels paid off in 11 years.
    “It all depends on the production,” he said.
    Before installing the panels, Peterson said his monthly electric bill was between $700-$800.
    The meters keep a running total of all of the kilowatts produced by the panels as well as how many kilowatts are being used. If not all of the energy is used, it is set aside as a credit for future use. That way, if the panels are not producing as much one month, Peterson can use the credits he has banked up to put towards the monthly electric bill.
    Since the installation of the solar panels, the energy generated covers the cost of the monthly electric bill and usually gives Peterson $150-$200 in credit per month. If all of the built-up kilowatts are not used by the end of the year, Peterson will get the money back.
    “As long as it’s light out, the panels will produce something,” Peterson said.
    Peterson said the best time of the year for the panels is June to August because it is lighter for longer periods of time.
    The main benefit Peterson is seeing from the solar panels is a reduction in his electric bill.
    “[The panels] contribute to a more sustainable energy production,” he said.
    The panels can report how many kilowatts are produced each day and if a panel is not working. MinnSolar monitors the panels and will act if anything is wrong.
    Peterson has not had any problems with his solar panels so far.
    “They are pretty tough,” Peterson said.
    The one negative thing Peterson foresees is snow building up on the solar panels during the winter. If the snow piles on the panels, he plans to brush them off so he does not lose hours of energy.
    The solar panels add to the other sustainable practices Peterson uses on his farms. He began using rotational grazing for his cows and then went to organic production in 2000.
    “Moving to organic wasn’t much of a leap from rotational grazing,” Peterson said.
    He also seasonally calves in his cows in March.
    “I’ve been involved with sustainable ag for 30 years, so solar panels were another part that fit in with the grazing and organics,” Peterson said.
    So far, Peterson is happy with the results he has seen.
    “I wouldn’t have done anything differently,” Peterson said.