SPAFFORD — Kim and Eric Brayman haven't paid an electric bill for their Fesko Farm property in about a year.
And that's huge for a 600-cow dairy farm that can rack up $9,000 worth of power consumption in the summer months when it takes more energy to cool the milk and operate fans that run at full capacity all the time all the way down through most of the barns.
But, thanks to a 303-kilowatt, ground-mounted solar array made of 1,045 290-watt panels, the farm generates virtually all of the electricity it consumes in a year. The array sits on a post-driven racking system that feeds all of the electricity into a single inverter that in turn sends the power to the grid.
In the past 12 months, the array produced a total of 362 megawatt-hours of energy, and the farm then receives that power from the grid for its own consumption. So, in essence, the farm doesn't pay for its electricity.
"That's what it's offsetting," said Kim Brayman, the daughter of farm founders Chris and the late Rick Fesko who now manages the farm with her husband, Eric. "The summertime seems to be when the most consumption happens."
Brayman said the farm hasn't paid an electric bill since last March, and even that was only because of the immense snowfall that accumulated on the panels last February in the absence of a January thaw.
With a laugh, she noted that instance was not a matter of not wanting to go outside to brush the snow off the panels but of not having a place to put the snow.
"I think if we hadn't had that, I may not have had to pay in March, but I ended up paying some in March over the winter because of that," Brayman said.
Fesko Farms had its solar panels installed in 2012 after receiving a grant to put them in, but Brayman said a stipulation of the grant was that it could not feed the array directly into the farm.
So, the array operates on what is called net-metering — the produced power goes to the grid and comes back as consumed power.
"For every kilowatt that we produce, it offsets one that we consume," she said.
Originally, she said, the farm looked at windmills as a power source, as her parents thought about alternative energy for their operation. Windmills were popular at the time, and the Feskos set up a wind tower and learned the farm was a good place for such a device with ample wind.
"But, we did receive a lot of pushback from the community," Brayman said. "They were afraid it was going to ruin vistas, and they were afraid of noise or what have you."
At the time, though, solar power was starting to become popular as well. Chris Fesko was at Empire Farm Days in Seneca Falls when representatives from Pennsylvania-based RER Energy approached her from the booth across the way and asked her if they could see if the farm would be good for solar panels.
The Braymans had taken over the farm by that point, so RER contacted them and they decided to give it a try.
"It was more or less just for humor," Brayman said. "We were like, 'Sure, go ahead.'"
She said they still considered windmills, but after talking about it, they realized that the one thing that wears on a piece of equipment is the moving parts.
"There are no moving parts in solar, and there are moving parts in windmills," she said. "We didn't want any extra stuff to manage, and I thought a windmill might require a little more management than solar panels."
As Brayman spoke about the solar panels on a rainy, gloomy day, she said they were still producing — they just need some light, she said.
"It doesn't have to be bright and sunny," she said. "It is more efficient when it's clear and sunny and cool. ... They love the cool weather because heat builds up resistance. You want nice, cool days and real nice and sunny. That's when those things just go through the roof."
The panels even produce some energy in the winter, she said. Because the array is ground-mounted instead of roof-mounted, it is angled steeper than a roof and snow typically slides right off the panels before it slides off the roof.
A rainstorm every now and then is good for the panels, though, as Brayman said the rain helps wash off the dust that gets kicked up from the road and onto the panels, hindering their production. They have never sprayed off the panels themselves and instead wait for a good rainstorm to move through.
Initially, the array was estimated to produce 80 percent of the electricity the farm consumes in a year, but Brayman said installing LED lighting helped bring down consumption and cause the panels to meet all of the energy needs.
"They just kind of accumulate, and we eat them up throughout the year," she said of the power produced by the array. "If, at the turn of the year, there's an overproduction, they pay you for that. But it's pennies. It's not a lot of money."
She noted that the acre of land on which the array stands across the road from the Braymans' farm contains a diversion ditch to take water from the hillside to the creek before it gets to the area where they used to keep calves.
Because of the ditch, they couldn't work that piece of land, so they instead had a small patch of sweet corn and Brayman's garden over there. In other words, they had the space available for a solar array that other farms might not.
"It was kind of this big field that we couldn't do anything with and someone had to mow," Brayman said. "A lot of farms don't want to take their fields out of production, and we had this field that was pretty much sitting there. We saw a return in a field we couldn't get a return off of. It was nice to be able to put that down and have it produce something for the farm."