MERRILL, Iowa | The solar panel inverters at Joe and Dianne Rotta's farm hummed Thursday as the sun shined brightly. When an itinerant cloud or two passed in front of the sun, the hum became noticeably quieter. 

But the inverters -- which put out AC electricity collected by solar panels -- revved back up as soon as the cloud passed. 

The Rottas hosted a group of almost 20 visitors at their farm Thursday morning, including several Iowa legislators: Rep. Chuck Holz, R-Le Mars; Rep. Timothy Kacena, D-Sioux City; Rep. Jim Carlin R-Sioux City; and Sen. Bill Anderson, R-Pierson. 

The tour was organized by The Nature Conservancy, an environmental group, as well as Van Meter, a Sioux City electrical supply company. The purpose was to give the legislators and others an up close and personal view of a local solar panel installation, and to educate them about solar power in Iowa. 

Rob Hatch, president of Storm Lake-based Trusted Energy, led the tour around the solar installation. Trusted Energy installed the panels for the Rottas. 

The panels produce enough energy to power the farm and even feed some electricity back into the electrical grid. At night and during the energy-intensive harvesting season, the credits they got for that excess electricity offset the cost of using non-solar power. 

So, in effect, the Rottas no longer pay for their electricity. Which is significant, because Hatch said the farm was paying about $20,000 a year for electricity before they installed the panels. 

Before tax incentives are taken into account, the farm's solar installation cost about $300,000, Hatch said. Because of state and federal tax credits, the system cost the Rottas about $80,000 -- meaning it will have paid for itself within four years of operation. 

The panels are rated to last 25 years -- at which time they will still function, but will likely generate 20 percent less electricity than when they were new. 

Hatch touted the American-made solar panels and inverters, which are engineered to withstand high winds and baseball-sized hail.  

Solar panels, he added, have virtually no moving parts -- making them lower-maintenance than most forms of energy generation. 

In the future, Hatch said, solar panels will become increasingly common, especially at any time that overall energy costs rise. 

"The cost of the sun will not go up," he said. 

Tax incentives in peril

Of course, without the tax incentives, projects like the one at the Rotta farm would be less affordable. Logan Welch, renewable energy project manager at Van Meter, said that the solar energy industry has reached a point where it can sustain itself without tax rebates -- but losing those incentives would stifle future developments. 

"I feel that, yes, we could do without tax credits -- however, I don't want to see them go away. I think it's done a lot for the advancement of the technology, the market, job creation," Welch said. 

Welch said he hoped that, after today's trip, legislators would see the increasing prowess of solar energy, and would continue to offer support, particularly in the form of the Iowa's Renewable Energy Tax Credit. That credit is scheduled to expire in December. 

The tax credits, Welch and Hack were quick to point out, actually generate considerable cash flow -- about $7 worth of economic activity and investments for every $1 worth of tax incentives. Most of this economic stimulation ends up in rural areas. 

Kacena said he was impressed by the seven-to-one returns on investment. 

"It sounded like there was a good payback on it," Kacena said. "Compared to a lot of tax credits out there that are like, maybe one-to-one, or maybe one-to-the-negative." 

Even so, Kacena could make no promises about the future of the tax credit given the state's current budget situation. 

"Everything's going to be on the table when it comes budget time," Kacena said. "We've got a lot of budget work to do down there. It's awful hard to talk tax credits when you're going down to cut another $50 million from the budget, and over $350 million that we were down this year."

 

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