Vitamin D: Solar to Dollars

With a smart finance plan, serious incentives and an established solar contractor, two California dairymen have turned 4 acres of solar technology into a real cash cow.

By Sabra Morris | Photos By Jamie Cole

In the southern half of California’s Central Valley lies Kings County. Here, the soils are some of the continent’s richest and skies are sunny for upwards of 300 days each year, making the county and the rest of the valley one of the planet’s most fertile growing regions.

Mike and Manny Monteiro

Mike and Manny Monteiro

Accordingly, it’s home to crop, livestock and other agricultural operations, such as Lakeside Dairy, where third-generation dairymen Mike and Manuel “Manny” Monteiro milk 3,500 cows, producing an average 35,000 gallons of milk every day. They also grow and harvest alfalfa, wheat and silage corn on 1,200 acres, mostly for forage. It’s a big farm and a tightly run ship with two experienced businessmen at the helm.

Growth From Hard Work

The brothers learned their craft from their father, Melvin, and their grandfather, Manuel, who came to the U.S. from the Azores in 1916. The Monteiro family has remained in the Central Valley ever since, each generation making their way in the dairy business.

“My dad and grandpa, they were both motivated people,” says Mike. “My grandfather started out with nothing and thought he and his son had all they needed when they got to 300 cows and 400 acres of land. My dad wanted to go to 1,000 cows. Well, the same thing happened to my brother and me. We wanted 10,000. We want to grow more. We want to build more.”

And build they have. Today, the brothers own one dairy, M.S. Monteiro & Sons in Tulare County, with their father. With each other, they co-own two others: Endeavor Gold Dairy, also in Tulare, and their newest operation, Lakeside.

Up to 80 cows can “ride” the milking rotary at a time, each sending milk to tanks below. Manny says the cows often enjoy the ride, and it can be tough to get them off the rotary when milking is complete.

Up to 80 cows can “ride” the milking rotary at a time, each sending milk to tanks below. Manny says the cows often enjoy the ride, and it can be tough to get them off the rotary when milking is complete.

With its 1,200 acres, an 80-cow milking rotary and three, 7,000-gallon storage tanks all housed within an 11,000-square-foot concrete milking barn, Lakeside Dairy cuts an impressive figure. There’s a 600- x 500-foot irrigation lagoon and a 450- x 500-foot anaerobic lagoon on-site. Fifteen heifer corrals totaling 1 million square feet to the east of the milking area add to the expanse with about 8 acres of feed storage area. Then, to the west, lies a 4-acre array of ground-installed solar photovoltaic (PV) panels that has changed the operation as much as it has the surrounding landscape.

Opportunity Knocks

The solar PV array might just be the Monteiros’ best investment to date. “In 2008, I had several investors calling me from around the United States. They’d found that we were within a half mile of the PG&E [Pacific Gas & Electric Company] substation out here,” says Mike. “These investors were asking to buy or rent 100 acres of our land to build their own solar fields.”

A year later, a company from Spain came to the farm and offered to put solar panels on Lakeside’s south-facing free stalls. Mike knew he was sitting on something big. He wondered if he could benefit from solar technology on his property—not as a landlord, but as a system owner.

He and Manny were also trying to find ways to soften the financial blow of the economic downturn that rocked the dairy industry in 2009, plummeting the price paid to milk producers to far below the cost of production and putting many dairymen out of business.

Four acres of panels produce 1.7 million kilowatt hours a year.

Four acres of panels produce 1.7 million kilowatt hours a year.

Mike told his banker, Randy Irwin of Rabobank, about the offers he’d received from solar investors. It just so happened that Rabobank had recently started a green energy department and was putting together finance packages for solar agricultural projects. Irwin provided Mike with a list of recommended solar contractors to contact, one of which was Novato, California-based SPG Solar.

“They’d already done several ag installations,” says Mike. He toured a few, and one in particular stood out. It was a tomato plant whose system size and output would be similar to Lakeside’s. “I was just thoroughly impressed,” he says.

SPG also offered a 10-year system warranty, 25-year panel warranty and an energy output guarantee, which promised the Monteiros’ system would produce 1.7 million kilowatt hours (kWh) per year. “That provides peace of mind to the customer that they’re getting a guaranteed return on investment,” says Dylan Dupre of SPG Solar.

Adding Up to Savings

SPG installed the Monteiros’ system in February 2011. The panels produce the guaranteed 1.7 million kWh annually. That’s enough clean energy to offset 75% of the electricity used at Lakeside—an amount equivalent to powering up to 157 typical American homes annually. The system powers the entire milking barn, lights and fans, manure separation equipment, and irrigation and well pump equipment.

With regular energy costs through PG&E ranging from $13,000 per month in the winter to as high as $30,000 per month in the summer at Lakeside, the savings are dramatic.

Still, the Monteiros’ system cost $3.5 million; a typical commercial dairy system can cost upwards of $2.5 million—a substantial investment by any standard. “This certainly isn’t for every dairy operation,” says Irwin. “The Monteiros utilize a lot of electricity. Because of the size of the operation, it becomes cost-effective for them.”

But size and electricity use are only part of the savings equation. The Monteiros also were able to take advantage of a federal government grant that paid 30% of the system’s cost within 30 days of installation. Through his tailored 10-year finance plan with Rabobank, Mike was able to apply that grant retroactively as a down payment, which eliminated any up-front cost.

Lakeside’s dairy facility sits on a 1,200-acre farm near Hanford, Calif.

Lakeside’s dairy facility sits on a 1,200-acre farm near Hanford, Calif.

Rabobank also developed a payment structure that takes into account Lakeside’s month-to-month electricity production. In the summer, when Lakeside uses and produces the most electricity and receives the most electric-bill savings, the dairy’s payment will be higher than in the winter months when electricity production and savings go down.

The Monteiros also receive additional benefits from the California Solar Initiative, a state cash-back incentive for home and business owners who install solar systems.

The initiative pays qualifiers an additional 15 cents per kWh, which for Lakeside amounts to an average of about $21,250 per month for the first five years.

Cash Positive from the Start

Substantial incentives and an expertly rendered finance plan have made the Monteiros’ solar investment cash positive from day one. After the bank loan is paid in full, Mike predicts he’ll save $192,000 per year in electricity costs at Lakeside.

“For Mike, it was always about the numbers,” says Dupre. “It wasn’t until a certain point in 2010 where commercial solar, with rebates and incentives, really started to become a great investment. Mike was at the front of the line when that happened.”

The Monteiros’ installation has sparked curiosity among others regarding commercial PV. “Since Mike did this, we’ve experienced a large increase in the level of interest we’re seeing among the dairy community for solar,” says Dupre.

For the Monteiros, the decision was a smart one. “If you’re thinking long term about your business, reducing your operating costs and improving your bottom line, solar can be part of the equation,” Dupre says. “Mike was savvy enough to figure that out early on.”