Despite leaps in agrarian technology, growing and raising food ultimately depends on soil, water and sunlight. At Northwind Farm in Tivoli, the sun is being put to another use: producing electricity.
In April, Northwind owner Richard Biezynski embraced solar energy to help run his 187-acre farm, near Tivoli. He hired Hudson Solar of Rhinebeck (now known as Hudson Valley Clean Energy) to install 150 photovoltaic panels on an acre plot; the solar panels are perched on 15 heavy industrial pillars anchored 10 feet below the ground by cement pilings. The system turns the sun into 28 kilowatts of electricity—exactly what Biezynski needs for his pasture and barn-raised poultry, turkeys, ducks, rabbits, pork and beef, none of which are treated with antibiotics or hormones.
Before he could come up with money for the panels, Biezynski sold the development rights to 87 acres to a consortium that included the federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, Scenic Hudson, the Town of Red Hook, New York State Environmental Protection Fund and the Dutchess Land Conservancy. Biezynski used the development rights sale to pay for the solar panels; federal and state grants are expected to kick in some $47,000 for our-of-pocket costs. He says he sees the sale and solar installation as an investment for the future—his son Russell, who studied livestock management, animal science and ag business at SUNY Cobleskill, will one day take charge of the farm.
“I had to pay $133,000 [for the solar panels]—that’s a lot of money. I’m waiting on the federal grants. You have to look at it over the long term; I figure it will pay us back in 10 years. This is really for my son, who wants to take over the farm. He’s the one who will benefit.”
A fanfare celebrating Biezynski’s solar investment and the conservation easement took place at Northwind Farm in May. Attending were New York State Senator Steve Saland (R-Poughkeepsie), Dave Byrne, of Hudson Solar, and Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro. Biezynski says he hopes other farmers will consider going the solar route.
“I used about an acre of land for the panels, which isn’t totally out of production because I’m growing flowers and sugar snaps underneath. If all of the 36,000 farmers in New York State put one acre aside for solar panels—that’s a lot of electricity!” Biezynski says he’s always ready to discuss the project with anyone who is interested. “Everyone is curious about it. Not only other farmers at the farmers’ markets, but when people see me they all want to know how it works.”
“How it works” is not so complicated. Biezynski’s photovoltaic panels feed the farm’s main electrical panel, which is supplied by Central Hudson. If the solar panels, which are guaranteed for 25 years, produce more electricity than the farm actually needs, the energy is automatically re-routed to the utility grid, causing Biezynski’s electric meter, on the side of an older barn to spin backwards—the excess electricity is sold back to Central Hudson.
Hudson Solar claims that a one-kilowatt solar electric system can save 150 pounds of coal from being mined, prevent 300 pounds of coal from being mined, prevent 300 pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, and lessen the amount of smog and acid rain that chokes up the environment. They also claim the same 1-kilowatt system keeps about 105 gallons of water from being consumed in a hydroelectric plant. Undoubtedly, solar panels could decrease the need for nuclear power, as well.
The panels need to be adjusted four times a year in order to optimize their orientation to the sun. In August, Russell climbed a ladder with a wrench, loosened a bolt and tilted the panel up a few degrees—a two-minute process.
“April was a very sunny month and we did very well.” Beizinski says. “But May was cloudy and rainy. We still reduced the amount of electricity we used from Central Hudson, byt not as much.” Hudson Solar estimates that the solar power produced by the panels costs Biezinski 1 cent per kilowatt hour, considerably less than the utility’s price of 11 to 13 cents.
“In theory, the system gathers 120 percent more electricity than the farm uses on a yearly basis,” Beizinski says. “We’ll need a year to really figure out where we are with this. Until then, we won’t know for sure.”
Biezynski, who for over 30 years has practiced natural and organic farming at Northwind Farm, sees the use of solar energy as completing a natural cycle. “The sun nurtures my plants, my plants nurture animals, my animals then nurture my plants with manure,” he says. “So it makes sense to have the sun nurture my electricity.”