Hay helps rural Nebraskans explore clean energy options

· 5 min read

Hay helps rural Nebraskans explore clean energy options

Workshop participants help assemble a solar photovoltaic array at a hands-on workshop during summer 2018.
Workshop participants help assemble a solar photovoltaic array at a hands-on workshop during summer 2018.

Making the switch to clean energy is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. John Hay, a Nebraska Extension educator who conducts workshops on solar energy, helps individuals make the decision that best suits their home, farm, ranch or business.

“Success isn’t always choosing to install solar,” he said. “Success is doing a good analysis of the resources to make the best decision.”

Since 2007, Hay has conducted workshops through Nebraska Extension to educate farmers, homeowners and rural business owners on the process of installing clean energy technology. During the in-person and online workshops, participants learn to run cost-analysis models, which evaluate installation, energy usage options, return value and more. Following each workshop, attendees can work one-on-one with educators such as Hay, where they walk through their models. The entire process is tailored to the individual.

“Solar energy may be worth a different price in the summer vs. winter, or in one part of the day vs. another,” Hay said. “Depending on state laws, it could be different on how much you generate in a day, week or month. This is why modeling is important.”

The models lay out everything one needs to know about installing clean energy technology on a property.

“We try to be very realistic,” Hay said. “Farms that have more consistent use have the best chance to gain value,” such as those in an animal facility with fans, feeders, water and lights. “With solar, you can use most of that electricity on site, no matter how policies change. With irrigation systems, you may only get a portion of the value because you only use those a few months a year.”

The workshops focus on more than monetary value, however. Michael Kocher, who installed solar technology on his property after attending an in-person workshop, said he values the benefits to the environment, too.

“There’s value in being environmentally friendly,” he said. “How do you put a value on contributing to reducing greenhouse gasses? John talked about the different ‘values’ that are less tangible than strict economics, but not unimportant.”

Hay, who teaches energy science courses at Nebraska, became interested in renewable energy because people would ask him if wind turbines or solar panels were a “good deal.”

“I wanted to provide them with a good answer, so I started to learn more to help them make their own decisions,” he said. “I befriended an installer and began helping install systems. I’ve helped install a dozen, and then I’ve done a ton of modeling with economic analysis. That’s been the key piece of our education.”

Hay capitalizes on his experience during the in-person workshops, in which participants build solar arrays.

Whatever the venue, Hay said he enjoys sharing his interest with those trying to make their lives and communities better — however their decisions play out. For example, some attendees come interested in agrivoltaics: combining solar arrays and crop production in the same space.

“One farmer wanted to put solar up at a feed lot and use it as shade, but it wasn’t feasible for his operation,” said Hay, emphasizing that installing solar technology isn’t the point of the workshops. “The focus is on good decisions — decisions with data.”

John Phillips, owner of Branched Oak Marina near Raymond, Nebraska, attended one of the hands-on workshops because he was curious about using solar to power the marina buildings, one of which houses a restaurant.

“We went through a couple projects — the economy of solar and the science of it,” he said. “But at my age, the payback was going to be too long.”

Phillips’ decision not to install didn’t discourage Hay.

“In the workshop, we explore what fits your goals,” Hay said. “We identify motivations and help you make those decisions easier.”

The process proved beneficial for Ron Rose, a renewable energy consultant for the Nebraska Public Power District. He was drawn to the workshop because he thought it would make him better at his job.

Rose learned a lot in the workshop and even drew on what he learned to install solar panels on his wife’s chiropractic office in Aurora. Shade on one side of the building presented an issue, but Hay and Rose worked through it together. The panels generate enough power for the office, and Rose and his wife sell excess power to the utility company.

While the workshops are based out of the university, Hay’s efforts, combined with a cohort from Ohio State University, are felt nationwide. For some workshops, he has partnered with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

“During our last online workshop, we had 140 people from 17 states attend,” Hay said.

However, as the workshops become more widespread, Hay is continuing to focus on the unique wants and needs of individuals and what they deem a successful and valuable experience.

“Success is an initial evaluation of your goals and your motivations for solar and renewables,” he said. “It’s very personal.”

For more information on the renewable energy workshops, including schedules and registration options, click here.

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