Light at end of tunnel may be solar power

In the summer, the solar panels have 6.9 peak hours of light.

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WALLA WALLA - Saving money and the environment are topics on most people's minds nowadays.

For Les Richardson and his family, who live on Lower Hogeye Road outside Waitsburg, this statement couldn't be more true. When driving on the highway toward Clarkston, it's hard to miss the three state-of-the-art solar panels in his wheat field that will power a commercial greenhouse, game bird equipment and field irrigation.

This system is the only one in this part of Washington state. Since his system has been in place for less than a month, Richardson said he is still going through the inspection process. The reason being that the regulations are neither nationally standardized nor are inspectors familiar with the protocol for solar energy systems.

On top of each panel is an automatic tracking device that follows the brightest spot around the electric eye. This means that the panels use the sun, reflections, etc. to generate power. The energy generated by the system will be stored on the grid. At night, the panels automatically reset facing east.

In summer, the panels will have 6.9 peak hours of light as compared to 2.1 peak hours in the winter. The difference in peak light hours is due to the Earth‘s rotation toward and away from the sun.

Cost is the most restrictive part of this project - $100,000 up front. To fund his project, Richardson applied for a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He also applied for one of only three energy grants in Washington state.

"The state pays you an incentive for green energy," said Richardson. "So every August I read my meter for the year; I'll take the kilowatt hours I produce and they'll pay me 15 cents a kilowatt hour up to $5,000 a year."

However, if any of the parts and pieces are made in Washington, the state pays up to 54 cents per kilowatt hour. Unfortunately, Richardson was unable to get any of his equipment in the state. "I can't wait to see these (the meter numbers) start spinning," he said.

A future goal for Richardson is growing vegetables in the field and greenhouse with hopes of opening an online vegetable store where people would place their order for the week and the items would be delivered to the customer's door "like the milk man used to do."

According to Richardson, studies have shown that people who use solar energy tend to watch their electricity consumption more closely. This includes shutting off lights in unoccupied rooms, changing light bulbs regularly, etc.

Richardson encourages other farmers and local wineries to pursue using solar energy too.

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