Cheesemakers Look to the Sun for Relief from High Energy Costs

Gabriela Martin is Clean Energy Consultant for the Environmental Law& Policy Center in Chicago; ELPC is a Midwest-based environmental and economic development advocacy organization.  She asked me to post this article she wrote about North Carolina cheesemaker The Goat Lady Dairy in order to spread the word about the usefulness of solar power systems in cheesemaking operations.


The Goat Lady Dairy is located on lovely, rolling hills south of Greensboro, North Carolina.  For almost 10 years, Steve Tate and his family have been raising goats and producing handmade farmstead cheese.  With the milk from their herd of 60 goats and some additional milk purchased from other goat operations, Goat Lady Dairy produces 400-600 lbs of cheese each week from March to December.

The Goat Lady DairyIn the winter months, just before kidding season, the Tates get a break from milking and making cheese. But Steve Tate is already thinking about next season’s operations.  He is about to install a solar thermal system that will provide much of the hot water needed to clean the milking parlor, milk bulk tank, and all the cheese room equipment. “We are committed to nurturing the land and operating our business based on principles of sustainable agriculture,” said Tate, “so looking to the sun as a source of energy seemed natural. But in this case, we will also have significant savings from greatly reducing our use of propane to heat our water.”

The solar hot water system at the Goat Lady Dairy will consist of five 4’x10’ panels mounted on the south facing roof of the barn.  With the help of a small pump, the system circulates water through the solar panels where it absorbs the heat from the sun.  The solar-heated water is stored in a 300 gallon drainback storage tank. The incoming cold water then flows through a heat exchanger in the storage tank where it is pre-heated with the free solar energy before it flows into the propane-fired hot water tank to be used as needed.  Steve Tate expects that the hot water temperature for their operations will easily exceed 150 degrees F and that the propane-fired hot water heater will mainly function as a back-up on cloudy days.

solar panelsAccording to Gabriela Martin, Clean Energy Consultant for the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago, “the reduction in energy costs is attractive in itself, especially with the recent increases in the cost of propane and natural gas.  However, the current combination of Federal and State support for renewable energy has greatly improved the economics for solar thermal systems and is making them attractive investments.” The Goat Lady Dairy solar thermal system will cost $10,000, fully installed. The Tates applied for, and received, a Federal Farm Bill grant for $2,500.  Beginning January 1, 2006 (and effective through December 31, 2007) a 30% Federal tax credit is in effect for solar systems. In addition, businesses that install solar systems for their operations can take advantage for the 5-Year Accelerated Depreciation provisions that exist for solar thermal and other renewable energy systems. Add it all up, and the $10,000 solar thermal system is costing Steve Tate less than $1,500.  “The cost of propane has gone up 25% since last year,” Tate says. “At this level of fuel prices this system will pay for itself in less than 2 years!” (note: solar installation in this photo is not from The Goat Lady Dairy).

For more information on:

* Section 9006 of the Federal Farm Bill that offers 25% grants for renewable energy installations go to the US Department of Agriculture website or here. The 2006 deadline for grant applications is May 12, 2006.

* A sample solar thermal application is being developed and will be posted here.

* Federal tax credits for solar are in effect 1/1/2006 – 12/31/2007, go here or here for the Guide to New Federal Credits for Solar Energy

* State-level incentives for renewable energy, including solar, go here.

* Click here to find solar installers in your area.