SUBLETTE, Ill. — A Sublette farmer is using the sun for more
than growing his crops. He’s also using it to power his home and farm.
“We’ll get electricity all year,” said Louis Vaessen, who
farms with wife Carol on their Centennial Farm in rural Lee County.
Vaessen said he’s always been interested in solar
electricity and how it might be used to power his home. The only drawback was
that he didn’t want the panels on the ground, creating an obstruction for him to
mow and farm around.
“The roof of that barn was at the perfect angle,” Vaessen
said, referring to a frame barn just beyond his house.
Another area farmer had some information about panels that
he shared with Vaessen. Vaessen then gave Paul Ebener of Ebener Construction in
La Salle a call last fall.
Ebener told Vaessen about a U.S. Department of Agriculture
Rural Development’s Rural Energy for America Program.
The program is designed to help farmers and small businesses
install renewable energy systems and to help make improvements in the area of
The program was created in the 2002 farm bill and renamed in
the 2008 farm bill as the Rural Energy for America program. The program was
continued in the recently signed 2014 farm bill.
“I applied right before we went on our trip to Israel, and I
didn’t think we would get it,” Vaessen said.
When they returned from the trip in fall of 2013, paperwork
from USDA was waiting, asking for more information. Vaessen sent that
information and was approved for a grant to fund 25 percent of the cost of
installing a solar array on his barn roof.
“They checked the angle of the roof, and it was almost
perfect,” Vaessen said.
Farmers and small business owners can apply for grants to
fund up to 25 percent of the eligible cost of a renewable energy system, a
guaranteed loan to fund up to 75 percent of the guaranteed costs and a
combination of grant and guaranteed loan to fund up to 75 percent of the
Farmers must be directly engaged in agricultural production,
and 50 percent or more of their gross income must come from agriculture
production. For small business owners, they must meet Small Business
Administration small business-size standards.
Renewable energy systems that are eligible for funding
include wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, hydro power and hydrogen.
Energy-efficiency projects that are eligible include improvements to buildings
and industrial equipment.
Projects must be located in a rural area, with less than
50,000 in population and not contiguous to an urban area with a population
greater than 50,000.
Ebener ordered and installed the 40 panels that measure 4 by
“The barn is an old frame barn, and they checked it over and
said it could handle it,” Vaessen said.
The crew bolted rails to the barn roof, which was replaced a
few years ago, and the panels are attached to those rails. The panels are said
to be able to withstand a two-inch hailstorm.
The heat from the panels has been able to keep the snows off
of the array, except once when Vaessen went up to clean them off.
Vaessen monitors each panel’s output and the combined
electricity output on a program on his iPad.
“You can see each panel and how much they’re putting out.
It’s been peaking around 11 a.m.,” Vaessen said.
In the summer, he said, the sun can get too high for the
panels to produce maximum electricity. But the advantage is that the days are
longer, so there will be a longer supply of sunshine.
The panels are guaranteed for 25 years and are capable of
making 10,000 watts of electricity, although Vaessen said they haven’t made that
If Louis and Carol aren’t using the electricity, it goes
through their meter into the Exelon grid, and Vaessen is paid for his power.
“If I’m using it, it doesn’t go through the meter,” Vaessen
said, thus cutting down on the power that the Vaessens use through the meter
Having electric heat in their century-old farmhouse, Vaessen
said they’ve used all the electricity the panels have been able to produce.
The total cost of the panels and installation was about
$28,000. The minimum grant amount is $2,500 and the maximum is $500,000. The
minimum guaranteed loan amount is $5,000 and the maximum is $25 million.
Vaessen is waiting to get his 25 percent back from the
state. He’s also eying the empty spot on his barn’s roof.
“There’s enough room up on the barn roof that I can put up
another 10,000 watts’ worth of panels after I see how this works out,” he said.
Carol Vaessen has plans for the homegrown electricity come
“We’re using more than they produce now, but in the
summertime, it pretty much should all go back to the grid,” she said. “We don’t
use the air conditioning.”
“We will this year if we have those,” she added.