In 1782, Owen Isaacs took a plow to soil in Sussex County, Del., with high hopes for his new farm. Five generations later, Robbie Isaacs stands on the family farm near Ellendale, Del., with a huge grin spreading across his face as he watches a virtual electric meter spin backwards on his iPhone – he, too, with high hopes.
Isaacs has just converted his family’s 13-house poultry farm near Ellendale to solar energy, and he can monitor every detail of how much energy his 350 solar panels are producing and get alerts from anywhere in the world via his iPhone or computer.
The Isaacs farm is the first privately owned poultry farm in the Mid-Atlantic region to convert to solar power. His new system, designed and built by a team of engineers and certified solar technicians from Flexera Inc., in Harbeson, Del., is doing better than anticipated.
This week, Isaacs said, his solar farm is producing more power than the farm is using. It’s also producing tens of thousands of dollars of income annually through the sale of SRECs (solar renewable energy certificates) to the utilities.
The system comprises three separately monitored, ground-mounted banks of solar panels. Flexera’s initial estimates, according to project manager Mike Manlove, showed the Isaacs farm would save more than $10,500 on their electric bills in addition to SREC income, but Isaacs is proving better than that.
Last week, between flocks on a partly sunny day, he watched one of his meters spinning backwards at a rate of more than 52,000 watts. The Isaacs solar farm was designed to produce just enough power to pay the farm’s energy bills, but so far, said Manlove, it’s out-producing estimates.
When Isaacs’ electric meters are running backwards, he’s feeding power back to the Mid-Atlantic power grid for credit, and that happens a lot in cooler months and between flocks being in the houses. “It’s like money in the bank,” said Isaacs.
With only one full month in operation, the Isaacs solar farm has produced 13 SRECs that are worth about $325 each, and prices are on the rise. Early estimates were the farm would produce about 79 SRECs annually, or close to $26,000 into Isaacs’ pocket. That’s been raised to 100, or an estimated $32,500, in addition to the savings from producing his own electricity.
Electricity is the largest expense of running a poultry farm, and the most vital. Without power to run fans and cooling systems in the houses during hot weather, a crop of chickens will die within seven minutes. The Isaacs farm of 13 houses produces around 1 million to 1.24 million chickens a year for Purdue Farms, with each flock numbering close to 248,000 chickens.
“That’s a lot of risk, and it’s a lot of energy,” said Isaacs. “With all the grant money out there that’s going to go away and all the advancements in solar energy, I just couldn’t see waiting any longer.
“Some of the farmers in the area are scratching their heads over what I’ve done, but they’re going to be wishing they’d done it sooner when the renewable energy grants go away. They’ve already been reduced.”
Isaacs studied alternative energy developments for more than a decade before getting the final go-ahead from his father to install solar on the family farm in January 2010. After he researched and chose a company, the systems were installed and running within six months.
“I just looked up at that big blue sky and thought, ‘All this sun is producing energy, and I can use that. Why pay someone else for energy when this,’” he said, looking up at the sky above his chicken houses and solar panels, “’is free?’
“Electric rates are just going to keep going up, but when our system is paid for in four to seven years, we’re just going to keep on selling those SRECs. There’s no maintenance. It’s free. It’s clean. And, it’s producing income,” he added with a smile that just kept getting bigger. “There’s no bad side to this.”
Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kees agreed, with qualifications. In a recent phone interview, he said that where alternative energy will make the biggest difference in keeping Delaware agricultural products competitive is at manufacturing plants, particularly such places as poultry processing plants, where energy use is even higher than large chicken farms like the Isaacs’.
But, he warned, installing such systems is only viable as long as the government is subsidizing through grants and SRECs. Flexera Regulatory Affairs Manager Finn McCabe agreed. “Regulations are changing daily, and we’re working hard to stay ahead of them.”
There were regulatory and financial challenges to be overcome before installing the Isaacs’ first-of-its-kind system on Delmarva, but Flexera’s engineering, financial and regulatory affairs teams produced all necessary analysis, projections and documentation and worked with Delaware Electric Co-op to get beyond them. The company wrote the grant requests and is handling the sale of all SRECs, which are legislated through 2025.
“I can’t wait ’til February, when there aren’t any flocks and we’re feeding all that energy back into the grid and those meters just keep spinning backwards,” said Isaacs.
The Isaacs family has been in poultry farming for close to 40 years. While Robbie Isaacs’ father, Dave, took some convincing, he’s on board now, as is Robbie’s 3-year-old son, Jasper, whose favorite thing to do these days is going out with his dad to watch the meters run.
All three modern generations of the Isaacs family are smiling a lot these days. Robbie Isaacs likes to think his great-great-great-great-grandfather Owen Isaacs would be smiling, too.
Next up for the future? Robbie Isaacs may add more solar panels to offset new cooling systems he’s installing in his houses, and he hopes to one day replace his propane gas-powered backup generators with hydrogen fuel-cell generators.
More information about the technology used for the Isaacs farm is available at www.flexera.net and by calling (302) 945-6870.