Solar energy cuts Pizza Ranch costs, inspires others

Tuesday, July 24, 2018
Photo by Seth Boyes

Spirit Lake Pizza Ranch Owner Terry Veldman has joined a growing caravan of business owners prioritizing renewable energy in their local communities. The local effort attracted the attention of Iowa's Fourth Congressional Representative Steve King Friday morning. Veldman's solar array has been operating for almost a year, and he said it has been a benefit to the restaurant.

"In the small business world, you've got to figure out how you can control some of your fixed costs and this was a big way to do it," Veldman said.

Veldman began considering the solar addition approximately three years ago, after a friend undertook a similar project. He began to research the subject and eventually hired Trusted Energy out of Storm Lake to do the job. The system includes a data display for customers to examine as they approach the cashier's desk. The data showed Veldman's system had saved the equivalent of 6,700 trees since being installed. King did some quick calculations and found that was approximately 20 trees a day.

"Ten years ago, I didn't anticipate solar would get to this level," King said.

Rob Hach, president of Trusted Energy, told King costs have come down over the years while paybacks for users have increased. He said the industry also continues to become more efficient the average solar panel is now rated at 370 watts, while the panels installed for Veldman just last year were at 325 watt units.

"Wind turbines have to get bigger in order to get even more competitive on pricing, whereas panels just have to continue to be more efficient on slicing the silica cell and the manufacturing of the inverters," Hach said.

King asked whether wind energy would be pushed out of the market if solar continued to be increasingly efficient. Hach didn't think so.

"They actually complement each other well," he said, adding the company is looking closer at hybrid projects. "Solar produces really well in the summertime. Wind turbines are the inverse."

Hach said advances in storage have made the battery industry one to watch in the future, as better batteries may be able to help energy companies address issues of demand when integrating renewable energy sources. Hach said wind farms serving MidAmerican Energy and Alliant Energy are still in operation, even after government tax credits have been removed. He said one wind farm in particular cost $300 million to create and paid itself off in six years.

King and Hach noted solar panels don't often cause as much, if any, neighborly pushback as turbines. Veldman agreed.

"That's the nice thing," Veldman said. "It's out of sight, out of mind and it works."

King, reiterated his position and said he doubts the idea of global climate change.

"Long ago, I took a look at the science and couldn't find enough science in what was then called global warming in fact, they couldn't find enough science to continue to call it global warming," he said. "They had to change it to climate change."

But that doesn't mean he is unsupportive of renewable energy.

"We need to have a diversified energy portfolio," King said. "Ethanol doesn't work out so great to be running generators. So let's do the wind, and let's do the solar."

He said Iowa has plenty of room for solar panels to be installed, but he also wants to be careful to not forfeit land capable of producing corn and by extension ethanol blended gasoline for solar power.

"I think we ought to have clean air and clean water, and we ought to be recognizing all new wealth comes out of the land," King said. "When you can convert that into energy as well as food products, you've got the best of both worlds."

To that end, King's office has invited acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to visit Iowa and better understand the state's role in the renewable fuels and renewable energy. King said Congress can't be sure if Wheeler's acting role will become permanent, so he wants producers to meet the new EPA head face to face and get the industry in Wheeler's bones.

"I don't know that anybody can come from the outside and understand this industry without living in it," King said. "Minnesota maybe got a little head-start on us, but Iowa has really built the lion's share of the industry and the capacity, and developed out the engineering and the design components If you replace a gallon of ethanol with a gallon of petroleum, it's not just a one for one equation. It has impact all the way through the industry livestock industry, co-product industry, C02 market."

Veldman said the environmental savings are part of the upgrade's appeal as well.

"I think a lot of people are interested in seeing what it does for the environment and the community," Veldman said. "We've basically planted 20 trees a day."

And other business owners are looking to do the same as Veldman. Hach said big-box stores like Walmart and Kohl's are two of the largest buyers of solar energy in the country. His company has also been working to bring solar power to countries like Kenya and Haiti. Plus, Veldman's franchise may be promoting a trend within the entire chain. Hach said he has been contacted by more and more Pizza Ranch operators recently.

"The corporate world is really wanting renewables," Hach said. "They want things to be different, and they're voting with their dollars. Terry voted with his dollars and they're going to get a pretty nice payback."

Veldman said each business is different, but he encouraged area businesses to consider offsetting their energy cost with renewables like solar.

"It's definitely beneficial for any small business or large business to look at solar production if they have space for it," he said.

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