Thinking of solar? Resources are available to help see if it's right for you

Minnesota Extension Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) offers thoughts on what questions to ask if you are considering adding solar to your operation.

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Melissa Birch from the University of Minnesota Extension Clean Energy Resource Teams speaks at a listening session and panel discussion about solar siting considerations on April 10 in Hayfield, Minn.
Noah Fish / Agweek

HAYFIELD, Minn. — Incorporating solar energy into a farming operation or small business can be an enticing option but a decision property owners shouldn't make without doing their homework first.

To explore the resources to do that, a listening session and panel discussion about solar siting considerations was held April 10 in Hayfield, hosted by the Farmers Union organizations in Dodge and Olmsted counties.

Speakers included Melissa Birch from the University of Minnesota Extension Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs), Mike Zastoupil from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Gwen Stevens from People’s Cooperative Electric.

The conversation was moderated by Ariel Kagan, MFU's climate director, who recommended MFU's Farmers’ Guide to Solar and Wind Energy in Minnesota to those interested in pursuing alternative energy production on operations.

Birch, the interim statewide co-director, Rural Energy Development coordinator and Central CERT coordinator, said it was "really great" to hear excitement and concerns from the people who came to the April 10 event.


"We basically connect people to resources to do community-based clean energy projects," Birch said. "So if you're looking to do solar, looking to do energy efficiency, at electric vehicles — we're the people to contact to to find out how to do that."

Price, popularity and process for solar

Birch said the price of solar has come down "dramatically" over the past 20 years, but has recently seen an increase.

"There's been a little bit of a bump up in the last two years or so, because of supply chain issues, but very minimal," said Birch of the price of solar. "It has come down to anywhere between $2 to $3.50 per watt installed, which is kind of how we look at it, depending on size of the array."

The popularity of solar installations at rural small businesses and farms, which Birch works primarily with, has soared.

"My phone has been ringing off the hook," said Birch. "We're definitely seeing a lot of interest from folks around renewable energy."

Birch recommends people looking to install solar on their property to use the resources on their website.

"We've got a lot of resources, including a solar directory, so you can look at who does solar in your area," she said.

According to the CERT website, questions that may help people begin the conversation with a solar installer include:


How long have you been in business? How many installations have you done? Do you have references I can contact? Photos of previous installations?

Do you provide a maintenance or service warranty? How do you handle manufacturer warranties? What maintenance is recommended? How long can I expect the system to last?

What is the current monetary value of the energy saved/generated?

Will you be responsible for obtaining the appropriate permits? (For example, building, plumbing, electrical, zoning, as required by the local jurisdiction.)

If the site for a potential solar installation is a farm, Birch said the CERT team can provide direct assistance, and will conduct a non-sale site assessment to help determine what solar would look like on the operation.

"That's something that we provide as part of some USDA funding that we have," said Birch.

The final step before installation would be to get several bids, she said, and the CERT team could also help with comparing them.

Livestock and solar

Sheep are the go-to livestock for solar panels, said Birch.


"Sheep are very well established at grazing under the solar panels," she said.

Goats, on the other hand, are not a good option.

"Goats do not combine well with solar," said Birch. "They have a tendency to eat the equipment and also jump on it."

She said there's some research being done on pasturing cattle underneath solar panels at the West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris.

"It turns out, they liked the shade," said Birch."But even if you're not specifically looking to do agrivoltaics, where they're on the same plot of land, it can be integrated into dairy operations, just to offset some of those costs, and other livestock operations as well."

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast. He covers a wide range of farmers and agribusinesses throughout Minnesota and surrounding states. He can be reached at

He reports out of Rochester, MN, where he lives with his wife, Kara, and their polite cat, Zena. He grew up in La Crosse, WI, and enjoys the talent from his home state like the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers and Grammy award-winning musicians Justin Vernon and Al Jarreau.
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