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Energy flows abundantly at Sun Harvest Farm. To sense it, simply look and listen as owners Jerry and Penny Koerner describe their efforts to transform a run-down Ridgeway, Wisconsin, farmstead into a showplace for harvesting solar energy.
The story begins when Jerry purchased the 160-acre farm in 1997, returning to his birth state after years of living on the East Coast. He spent those first few years cleaning up the place and doing simple updates to the farmhouse.Date Published: August 29, 2013Date Updated: February 7, 2014
Undoing years of neglect
“The farmstead had been neglected for years, so it was difficult to know where to start,” says Jerry.
In 2005, he married Penny, a teacher from nearby Madison. She shared his love of the land and fearless spirit when it came to projects. The couple restored numerous structures on the property in order to maintain the look of the original farm, which dates back to the early 1900s. They renovated a macahine shed, a corncrib, a smokehouse used as a garden shed, and a big red dairy barn. The Koerners considered building a new house on a ridge overlooking a scenic vista at the back of their property, but they opted to renovate the original farmhouse instead.Date Published: August 29, 2013Date Updated: February 7, 2014
A priority during the renovation was to make the home more energy efficient by replacing drafty doors and windows, and finding a renewable alternative for their oil-guzzling furnace.
To learn about renewable energy options, the Koerners attended Midwest Renewable Energy Association workshops and enlisted engineers from Focus on Energy, Wisconsin’s statewide utility alliance, to perform a site assessment of their farm’s potential for solar- and wind-energy production. Although the site was deemed suitable for both options, they decided to pursue solar to avoid the hefty costs associated with maintaining a wind turbine.Date Published: August 29, 2013Date Updated: February 7, 2014
Reaping the benefits of sunny days
In 2005, the Koerners installed a solar-thermal panel with eight, 4x10-foot solar collectors mounted on the ground at a 60º angle. Antifreeze-like liquid (glycol) circulates through the collectors where it is heated to more than 150° on sunny days, even when the temperature is below zero. The glycol is then pumped to an 800-gallon water tank in the couple’s basement, circulating through copper coiling shaped by hand by Penny and Jerry.Date Published: August 29, 2013Date Updated: February 7, 2014
The tank, a collapsible stainless steel unit, allows heat to be stored. Copper coil heat exchangers in the hot water tank warm radiant tube heaters underneath the flooring in the new addition and preheat water to 110° for their domestic hot water tank.
A high-efficiency propane boiler boosts heat to 120° in the domestic hot water tank and provides a back-up heat source for cloudy days when solar power is not sufficient to heat the radiant tubes. The configuration of piping, heat exchangers, pumps, and controllers that makes the solar thermal system work looks complicated. “It isn’t a normal heating system, but it is simple once you understand it,” says Jerry.Date Published: August 29, 2013Date Updated: February 7, 2014
Half their electricity
The other two large solar panel structures are solar photovoltaic units that produce electricity. One system produces roughly half the couple’s own annual electricity usage. This unit, which is connected to the local utility grid, is comprised of 16 collector modules, an AC-DC converter/controller, and a tracker to allow the unit to follow the rays of the sun throughout the day.
A net-metering system monitors the unit’s electricity production, compared to the couple’s usage, and sends excess electricity to the power grid. Each year, the system produces about 5,000 kilowatt hours (kwh) in electricity.Date Published: August 29, 2013Date Updated: February 7, 2014
A second system
A second photovoltaic system was installed in 2009 to produce electricity to sell to the Koerners’ utility. This system includes 16 photovoltaic panels and has a total electrical output capacity of 3.36 kilowatts. It produces approximately 5,500 kwh per year.
The Koerners spent roughly $76,000 to build all three solar units and received about $32,800 in Focus on Energy grants and federal tax credits, so total out-of-pocket costs were around $43,200. They figure they are earning a return of just under 10% per year on their investment for the electricity they sell.Date Published: August 29, 2013Date Updated: February 7, 2014
In addition to solar power, Jerry and Penny also burn wood – plentiful on their property – as another heat source for the home. They built a masonry fireplace/heater as part of the home renovation, doing the masonry work themselves, using limestone and sandstone from the property. “It’s an art,” says Jerry who learned masonry basics from his father, who was a bricklayer.
The fireplace burns clean and has a special core with a flue that allows heat to circulate through a long path in order to capture heat. On days when they want a fire, Jerry and Penny add enough wood to burn for two to three hours. The heat is absorbed into the masonry stones, and then it passively radiates into the room for 12 to 15 hours.
“With this fireplace, there’s no fiddling needed,” says Penny, who was initially concerned about the time it would take to attend to a fireplace used for heating the house.Date Published: August 29, 2013Date Updated: February 7, 2014
Dead trees found on the farm are cut in sections with chain saws and are split using a mechanical splitter. The wood is dried in a new 12×20-foot woodshed that has room to dry and store 11 cords of wood.
Cutting, splitting, and stacking wood is one of the more physically demanding jobs on the farm, agree the Koerners. “We don’t have to go to the gym on those days,” says Penny.
The couple designed a special wood closet for their great room with pass-through doors to the garage where wood from the shed is unloaded. The pass-through allows them to keep wood at their fingertips, while keeping most of the mess of it out of the house.Date Published: August 29, 2013Date Updated: February 7, 2014
Satisfied with solar
Using renewable energy brings great satisfaction for the Koerners. “We wanted to reduce our environmental footprint and dependence on fossil fuels,” explains Penny. They welcome questions from those seeking information about using solar power.
Jerry and Penny Koerner
Midwest Renewable Energy Association
Focus on Energy
focusonenergy.comDate Published: August 29, 2013Date Updated: February 7, 2014
More ways to harness the sun
Solar power can be used all around the acreage. Here are some ways to implement it at your place:Date Published: August 29, 2013Date Updated: February 7, 2014
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