The Nebraska Public Power District is launching a pilot project to test the feasibility of using sunlight to provide some of the electricity for center pivot irrigation systems.
NPPD, the state's largest electric utility, powers more than 30,000 center pivots in the state.
Few, if any, are powered by solar energy, said Dave Rich, the utility's sustainable energy manager. Most use electricity, propane or diesel fuel.
NPPD wants to install solar panels near a center pivot somewhere in the state so it can test equipment and learn more about integrating solar energy and irrigation systems. The solar panels would require about a tenth of an acre.
"This is an opportunity to define technically what the issues are going to be," Rich said.
The pilot project would use solar panels designed to generate up to 25 kilowatts of electricity, enough to supply some of the power needed to operate a center pivot irrigation system. The 25 kilowatts would be equal to about 25 horsepower, Rich said. Most center pivots need 25 to 125 horsepower to pump water and propel the wheels across farm fields.
"It will shave some of their costs off," Rich said.
On Friday, the NPPD board approved the pilot project and committed $25,000 from its Domestic Energy and Application Initiatives Program to help cover some of the costs, utility spokesman Mark Becker said.
NPPD plans to contact its wholesale customers -- other utilities who buy power -- to gauge interest in the pilot project, which could be in place by June.
The utility also needs to find an irrigator willing to participate -- and contribute $17,000.
"I think it all comes down to cost," said Rich.
Some farmers may be willing to invest because corn and soybean prices are high and they may have extra capital on hand, Rich said. Interest rates are also very low.
NPPD also plans to use $14,000 from a USDA Energy for America Program and a $24,000 federal tax credit for renewable energy to help pay for the $80,000 pilot project.
If the pilot is successful and NPPD proceeds with the solar energy initiative, future irrigators will have to pay more than $17,000 to participate because federal funds may not be available, Rich said.
The estimated lifespan of the solar panels is 25 years. The payback period for a non-pilot project is estimated at eight to 24 years with a 30 percent federal tax credit, NPPD said.
Until now, NPPD has invested in large-scale wind farm projects to reach its goal of having 10 percent of its power generation come from renewable energy resources by 2020.
Using small wind turbines to power irrigation systems was considered, but Rich said their towers were not high enough to reach the "good winds." And, he said, there are maintenance issues associated with smaller wind machines.
Unlike wind turbines, solar panels have no moving parts and only need to be washed off occasionally if it doesn't rain, he said.
"NPPD believes small solar is much better than small wind," Rich said.
More importantly, Rich said, solar energy units generate energy during the spring and summer, when electricity demand is heavy.
"Wind, historically, has the poorest months of generation in July and August," Rich said.