One year update: solar power at Headwaters Farm

aerial angled view of two structures at Headwaters Farm, including a barn in the foreground and a storage shed in the background, with solar-panel-covered roofs visible on both structures

Thanks to a 2019 Renewable Development Fund grant (RDF) from Portland General Electric, EMSWCD was able to purchase and install a 70kW photovoltaic system at Headwaters Farm. The solar panels were installed on two structures on the farm and began feeding electricity into the grid in April of 2020. In its first year of solar production, the renewable energy system generated 84 megawatt-hours, or enough to offset around 90% of the farm’s annual electricity consumption! This equated to a savings on the farm’s electricity bills of just under $10,000 for the year.

The Headwaters solar project was made possible with support from the PGE Renewable Development Fund, which contributed $55,566 towards the $155,374 total project cost. The Energy Trust of Oregon also contributed $23,715. Together over 50% of the project’s cost was covered by the Energy Trust and PGE’s RDF funds, with the balance coming from EMSWCD.

Nancy Hamilton, EMSWCD’s Executive Director, said of the project: “We are excited to be generating electricity at the farm and reducing our carbon footprint. And we are very grateful to PGE and their Green Future customers, as well as the Energy Trust of Oregon, for helping to make this solar project happen. The Headwaters Farm solar installation is an important demonstration opportunity for our farmers and visitors to Headwaters Farm, and the wider community we serve. The project also made a lot of sense for us financially.”

With the generous support of PGE and the Energy Trust, the Headwaters Farm solar system is anticipated to pay for itself within eight years. The solar panels are under warranty for 30 years and could be productive well beyond that.

“EMSWCD is committed to addressing the climate crisis,” says Rowan Steele, Headwaters Farm Program Manager. “Like many other farms, the barns at Headwaters have large roof surfaces facing south with great solar exposure. Between the two roofs we were able to accommodate a solar system that off-set almost all the electricity used on site, including for the irrigation pump, walk-in coolers, and a residence. That means we could generate power without impacting our farmland, which can be used to sequester carbon through cover cropping and other conservation farming practices. The solar system has also spurred investment in an electric UTV that replaced an old gas guzzling farm truck, and we are now exploring the exciting possibility of getting an electric tractor that will reduce our use of fossil fuels even further.”

Headwaters Farm is a unique space. The publicly owned property hosts beginning farmers launching their fledgling farm businesses through the Headwaters Incubator Program (HIP). These participants use the incubator program to access critical agricultural resources like affordable farmland, irrigation water, farm equipment and tools, and basic farm infrastructure. In addition, incubator farmers receive training in sustainable production practices and business development. There are currently 17 farm businesses operating at Headwaters Farm. While they are independent businesses, they leverage their proximity to other beginning growers by collaborating on bulk purchase and market opportunities, troubleshooting issues, or commiserating or celebrating struggles and successes.

In addition to the farm incubator, Headwaters Farm also serves as a demonstration site for agricultural and riparian conservation practices. It is a real-world example of how vibrant, viable farm businesses can operate adjacent to sensitive natural resources without detrimental impacts. On-farm conservation resources and improvements include the almost 15-acre Dianna Pope Natural Area riparian buffer surrounding the North Fork of Johnson Creek, extensive stormwater management facilities, fish passage enhancements, pollinator meadows and native plant hedgerows, and numerous efforts to support healthy soils.

The Headwaters Farm solar installation is another great tool for exposing incubator farmers and the public to the opportunities of on-farm energy production and ways to help a farm’s bottom line, reduce dependence on fossil energy, and support innovation. As Rowan Steele explains, “Headwaters Farm is a space of learning. Our farmers are learning how to operate a successful farm business, but they are also learning what resources are available to growers and creative ways to align their stewardship ethic with farm viability. Exposing new growers to solar power generation and electric farm equipment helps them envision how these resources fit into their future farm. This is especially valuable given how thin agricultural margins can be and the notable maintenance and fuel savings electric equipment can provide.”

As an organization helping people care for land and water, EMSWCD offers technical assistance and educational opportunities for landowners in our service area, and so are well placed to spread the word about the environmental and economic benefits of solar energy. Solar projects like this offer huge potential for farms across the state. Especially in situations like at Headwaters Farm when solar panels are sited on existing or new farm structures, and not on vital farmland.