By CHARLES H. FEATHERSTONE
For The Basin Business Journal
KENNEWICK — All Eugene Wilkie says he needs is a corner of an irrigated field.
A small patch of land a farmer isn’t using so he can help that farmer save maybe thousands of dollars each month on electricity bills.
“A lot of these pivots have triangles, and I can fit enough solar in a triangle to power it,” Wilkie said. “Yes, I’ve got to run wire, but we do that out at wind farms all the time.”
Wilkie, who started and owns Tri-Cities-based Now Solar, a company specializing in home and business solar power systems, was at the Northwest Hay Expo and the Washington-Oregon Potato Conference, looking for business prospects and promoting the advantages of solar power.
Because in his nearly 30 years in solar power, he’s discovered that farmers are some of his best customers.
“I started seeing all my farmer buddies and their power bills and I said, holy cow! I can offset this with solar, especially with the cost now,” Wilkie said.
“We do some residential, but our focus in on commercial and farms,” Wilkie continued. “Farms I would count as an utility size project, and some of these farms are million-dollar power users.”
Per kilowatt-hour, solar power is now competitive with natural gas, Wilkie said. A single irrigation pivot can run up a $30,000 electricity bill in a season, so even offsetting a portion of that with solar power means a lot of savings.
And that’s language farmers — especially large, commercial operators — understand, Wilkie said.
“I was really surprised that when you start talking to farmers about financial incentives, they are exactly the same as what they’d get on their tractor,” he said. “It was their language.”
Wilkie said his company only installs panels made from poly and mono-crystalline photovoltaic solar cells, equipment his company guarantees for 25 years but that at current electricity rates is paid off in three to five years.
When he first entered the business, he expected the greatest interest from organic farmers, or people who had relocated from the Puget Sound area to start a vineyard.
“But it’s farms of all sizes,” he said. “The first ones were mom-and-pop farms, maybe 100 acres, but now we’re starting to see more of the ‘I’ve got a couple thousand acres under lease.’”
“You get a half-million dollar power bill a year, that’s a lot of money,” Wilkie added. “I’m probably not going to wipe out all their power bill, but it’s going to be a portion.”