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The semi-trucks stream in and out, more than 60 a day, delivering mounds of corn and soybeans and departing full of feed pellets ready to fatten pigs across Illinois and Missouri.
This feed mill in Griggsville, Illinois, is a key component of the region’s thriving pork industry, operated by the nation’s largest family-owned hog-producing network.
“It never stops,” said Gerry Daignault, vice president of support operations for The Maschhoffs farm.
Neither does its need for electricity.
When people think about the cost of raising pigs, Daignault said, they probably think about the massive loads of grain needed to feed them. “But the power piece is getting bigger and bigger” — about two-thirds of the mill’s costs in recent years.
That’s why a new 3.06-megawatt solar array installed with help from state and federal incentives is a potential game changer for the company, which recently celebrated a ribbon-cutting for the panels with smoked bacon and porkchop sandwiches on a frigid October day.
“We’re very serious about our people, the pigs, trying to get the costs right,” Daignault said. “This was really stepping out of bounds for us, but we believe it’s going to be a good project that will save us 50% of our energy costs. That’s especially important in these economic times.”
A difficult road
The Maschhoffs produce customized feed mixes for different types of hogs. It’s “a science, not an art,” Daignault said. “You’ve got to move all the ingredients through the mill, through a mixer, steam conditioner, then pellet mills where it comes out in a particular size. There’s sow feed, finishing feed, boar feed, about eight different phases of feed.”
The Griggsville, Illinois, mill produces about 340,000 tons of feed per year. The company headquarters is in Carlyle, Illinois, and they raise hogs across six Midwestern states. Starting in 2019, with energy prices rising, company officials worried that the mill could not remain profitable. They turned to energy consultant Jeff Haarmann, managing partner of Affordable Gas and Electric, for advice.
“We noticed we were paying significantly more compared to our competitor mills and even our other mills,” said Paul Josias, associate director of planning and procurement for The Maschhoffs.
After considering multiple options and scenarios, Haarmann suggested they develop a solar array with Indiana-based Solential Energy, tapping the right to sell renewable energy credits, known as RECs, created by Illinois’ 2017 Future Energy Jobs Act. They estimated the project could save $320,000 in energy costs per year, with the costs of the solar array recouped in five years and another quarter-century of energy savings still to go.
Solential sales director Corey Miller said that under the terms of the rural electric cooperative where the mill is located, the operation was paying almost double the approximately 5 cents per kilowatt-hour that similar industries in investor-owned utility territory were paying at the time. They said attempts to negotiate a lower rate with the cooperative leadership went nowhere. The Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
“The Maschhoffs had already done a good job making sure the feed mill was as energy efficient as could be,” Haarmann said. “Then you start looking at onsite technologies. We had some doozies of different types of recommendations we looked at. Ultimately Illinois Shines [the state incentive program] made this kind of a no-brainer.”
“We went through a bunch of energy solutions through complex modeling,” added Miller. “What was the advantage to solar-only, to solar energy and storage, to a microgrid with natural gas generators? At the end of the day, it was solar-only with the Illinois Shines program with high REC value, the lower capital cost, the lowest return-on-investment period.”
The saga of solar incentives under the Future Energy Jobs Act proved a tumultuous one, as the wild popularity of the program led to administrative chaos and the rapid depletion of incentives, even as The Maschoffs and Solential were trying to get their project going.
“I laid out the capacity windows and waitlist we’d be facing — there was a fair amount of risk,” Miller said. “It took a substantial amount of buy-in and persuasion for The Maschhoffs that this would be a credible project. [Solential said], ‘We understand there’s legislation coming down the pipeline; we need you guys to trust us.’”
Indeed in September 2021, the Illinois legislature passed the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, renewing and expanding solar incentives and offering the possibility that the grain mill could save as much as $700,000 a year.
“We were able to get in the pipeline under the [Future Energy Jobs Act] requirements that didn’t include prevailing wage and other requirements that would have driven costs up” under the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act’s current terms, Haarmann noted.
The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act’s retroactive expansion of federal tax credits for solar — to 30% — also helped.
A bright ending
Construction of 6,800 ground-mounted panels on 11 acres next to the mill happened over the summer and early fall. Daignault said The Maschhoffs are now considering installing solar at other operations, to save money and help sustain their 150,000 sows, 1,000 employees and hundreds of affiliated independent hog farms, producing “solar-powered bacon.”
Haarmann said it’s the only feed mill powered by a large solar array that he knows of in the country. But it’s an investment he and company leaders think could be an example for other agricultural producers across the heartland.
Under the Future Energy Jobs Act, rural cooperative member-customers have found it hard or impossible to access solar incentives, but Haarmann said that interconnection and other interactions around installing the behind-the-meter solar went smoothly.
Miller noted that The Maschhoffs’ solar will likely help the cooperative’s larger system by slashing peak loads. Most of the time the mill will use all the solar energy being generated, but on weekends or other times of low demand, they may feed energy back to the grid. It will be compensated at a localized marginal price that is much lower than the retail price, perhaps 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, Miller said.
Daignault noted that in addition to the financial benefits, the solar array will theoretically displace more than 3,000 metric tons of carbon emissions per year, based on EPA figures.
“We are doing our part trying to understand how we can be more socially responsible,” he said.