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Q & A with Denise Pualsen and Richard Rajnus

Posted by Renee Magyar on February 28, 2017

The Rajnus family farm installed solar irrigation pumps and are now saving up to 50% each month on utility bills.

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Richard Rajnus next to the solar installation on his family farm.

Bridget Callahan, Energy Program Associate, went down to Malin, Oregon to visit with Richard Rajnus on his family farm. Rajnus and his family installed solar irrigation pumps, with support from the USDA REAP Grant Program, and are now saving up to 50% each month on utility bills.

Sustainable Northwest is raising awareness of and promoting REAP to help educate rural agricultural producers and small businesses about funding opportunities like these that can help get more clean energy projects off the ground by reducing the cost of development. 

SNW: Tell me about who you are and what you grow.

Richard: I’ve been a farmer for over 29 years, born and raised in Malin. My parents came from Poland and the Czech Republic and settled here. They were farmers here too. I grow organic alfalfa and barley on about 300 acres, which is considered a small family “garden” farm. 

There were lots of smaller family farms around here not long ago, but these days many of those farms have been sold to large corporations. We’re one of the few left. 

We have two solar projects on the farm. One smaller, that cost around $34,000, one larger that cost around $54,000. The smaller one is operational. In order for the larger one to function we’ll have to get new pumps. 

SNW: You now have solar powering your irrigation pumps. Tell me when and how you started thinking about going solar.

Denise: We had thought about solar for a while. We have been certified organic since 1987, so this was the next logical step to really be self-sufficient. The USDA came down and held a few meetings with Pacific Power and they told us about different available incentives to offset the costs. We had also received flyers and other materials in the mail. 

Richard: About 6 years ago our energy costs hiked way up, partly as a result of the KBRA [Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement]. We were looking for ways to try and cut back. 

We get mail all the time with offers for programs on renewable energy. We didn’t pay much attention until a few years ago; we actually looked through one of the pamphlets and thought it might be worth exploring. We’ve seen lots of solar getting developed around here and decided to look into it. Denise did most of the research. 

The big guys around here are also going solar, not just the smaller farms. Packing ships are really high energy users, so it makes sense they would pursue it. And there’s been more specialty crops moving in such as carrots and lettuce, not just wheat. There’s been an explosion of solar the last 5-6 years. 

SNW: What is the primary reason you were interested in going solar?

Denise: Cost savings more than anything. Also the incentives were appealing. We’ve seen others go solar around the valley, but we haven’t talked to a lot of neighbors about it. 

Richard: Cost savings. It’s so hard nowadays to save money and find areas to cut back. A lot of our costs are fixed. As a farmer, it’s always going out the door and it can be so challenging, but we realized energy is one of the few ways we could actually save money. 

SNW: You were able to offset 25% of your project costs due to the USDA REAP grant. How did you hear about that program?

Richard: I don’t remember, caught drift from another company or farmer. I only heard about it six months ago. Denise read about it and submitted the application. 

SNW: Was it a difficult process? Did anyone help you, such as Ecosolar?

Denise: The process wasn’t too challenging, I do all the Tilth paperwork and loans, so this was similar. However, we did pay for a grant writer, and I filled out the essential information on the application. We worked with Ecosolar and they were great to work with, helping us identify size and equipment specifications.  

One challenge was we had to have an accountant sign off on it, and that was a bit of a hassle. It was mostly the final paperwork that was a challenge.

SNW: Would you have pursued solar had it not been for the REAP grant to offset 25% of project costs?

Denise: I really don’t think so – that cost savings made a big difference for us. 

Richard: Probably not. 

SNW: Did you leverage the REAP grant with other sources of funding? From Energy Trust or the ODOE RED (Oregon Department of Energy Renewable Energy Development) grant?

Denise: We did. We got enough incentives so that we only paid for about 50% of the project cost. We received a Renewable Energy Development grant from the Oregon Department of Energy.  

SNW: Are you involved in your local irrigation district? If so, which one?

Richard: The Klamath Irrigation District, and yes, it’s a larger district with many members. I’ll go to the big water meetings from time to time. I’m considered “on-project.” 

There’s also the Malin and Shastaview Irrigation Districts, and they have been out in front on a lot of this [solar] stuff.  Lots of piping and VFD’s are being pursued as efficiency measures.

SNW: What has it been like since you installed solar on your farm?

Denise: We haven’t fully realized the savings and benefits because we don’t have the larger project up and running. The smaller system had a module go out at one point, so we lost a few months of savings. But once we realized it had gone out we contacted Ecosolar and they replaced it right away. Everyone has been so good to work with. 

Richard: We were told about how much we would be saving, but it wasn’t until I saw that first bill, which was 50% less than it was before solar, that I realized this was real.

SNW: Now that you have solar, would you recommend others apply for the grant?

Denise: I think so. As I mentioned we haven’t fully benefited from the systems yet, but it’s good to be putting something back into your farm. 

Richard: Yes, everyone’s talking about it. A lot of people around here think that solar is so expensive, that it will take too many years to pay off. But we were able to do it, and with grants and other programs it is more affordable than we had realized. 

We were paying about $15,000 in utility bills during the summer months combined. After going solar, we are paying about $400 each month, saving about 50%. The smaller solar project had a small payoff window, and now it’s almost paid off completely. 

Any excess energy gets sold back to the utility and we get an additional bill credit on our bills. 

SNW: Now that you are saving 50% on your energy bills each month, where does that savings go?

Denise: It goes back into the farm, mostly for equipment.

Richard: The money we’re saving goes into the farm account for maintenance and other upgrades we wouldn’t have been able to afford before. It also serves as an extra cushion for the unknowns, and we’ve used it. Now we can update our equipment. We recently purchased another hay rake as a result of those savings. Our next large purchase will be another watering system next to the canal, and we would like to pursue pivots. 

SNW: Do you think there are others that want to go solar, but do not know how or if they can afford it?

Richard: Absolutely – there’s a lot more need down here. We’re all going to have to work together down here to make it. If they knew about grants and other ways to fund it a lot more would take advantage. Some think they need to go solar before it becomes more expensive. 

For more information about the Rural Energy for America Program and to see statistics about the Rajnus Family Farm solar project, download the case story below.