Louis Vaessen stands near the 40 solar energy panels that he had installed on the roof of a barn on his home farm. The panels produce up to 10,000 watts of electricity, which can be used by Louis and wife Carol to power their own home or can be placed back into Exelon’s grid.
Louis Vaessen stands near the 40 solar energy panels that he had installed on the roof of a barn on his home farm. The panels produce up to 10,000 watts of electricity, which can be used by Louis and wife Carol to power their own home or can be placed back into Exelon’s grid.
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 energy efficiency.

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.

USDA Approval

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 eligible costs.

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 5 feet.

“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.

Sent To The Grid

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 much yet.

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 from Exelon.

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 summertime.

“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.