March 29, 2013
Dwayne Bauknight and Duane Miller share a first name. They live 1.9 miles apart on the same road and have almost nothing in common. Except for a row of gleaming new solar panels on their farms.
Dwayne Bauknight drives onto his Washington County property in a golf cart. He pulls a U-turn to park between two rows of 15-foot tall solar panels and shows how they work.
“When it’s producing it’ll go through all those inverters, all those yellow things, and then come out of that straight meter right there. And that shows you how much that’s doing on a daily basis,” he said.
Bauknight and his family signed a gas lease with Range Resources in October and used the money to install a 38.4 kilowatt solar array on their farm, Shared Acres. Though Bauknight won’t recoup the cost of his investment in energy bills for eight to 12 years, according to his calculations, he’s already beginning to produce enough energy to power his house.
DECIDING TO GO SOLAR
Seven years ago Bauknight decided to leave a job as a financial advisor and become a farmer. He says his two careers aren’t so different: now he grows food instead of money. He does a lot of the same kind of decision-making, he said—using the same math, analyzing risk.
Bauknight is conflicted about drilling for environmental reasons. But for his family’s sake, weighing the risks, he couldn’t not take the money. So if he was going to lease, he figured he could use the gas money to do something good for the environment.
“There’s different ways to sustainability, and one of the ways to sustainability is to take our fossil fuels and invest them in renewable energy,” he said. “I think that’s what we’ve been lacking for a long, long time.”
In looking to the future, Bauknight had a new risk to factor in. The golf cart helps Bauknight get around the property because he’s still having trouble walking. Last summer, while trying to remove a tree from the farm with a backhoe, it fell, on him, leaving him with a plate and eight screws in his lower back.
Driving back toward his house, Bauknight paused when asked what he thinks when he looks out at the solar panels.
He breathed out slowly. “I don’t know. Satisfaction. I’m doing something, you know?”
Just down the road, Duane Miller’s family has been farming this land for five generations.
“I was born here. Dad was born here. Granddad was born on the farm,” said Miller, bundled in a hooded sweatshirt and Carhartt overalls, breathing a little unevenly as he walked toward the solar array that sits up the small hill beside his blue gingerbread-lattice house. Two days before, Miller had an operation that should have kept him in bed for a couple weeks. He was already back to work.
“That first lease we got $3 an acre. Money we never had. That next lease they paid $14 an acre. When we signed with Range we got $2,250 an acre. There’s a bit of difference there,” he said, laughing.
Miller has no qualms about drilling for shale gas. He sees it as a boon for farmers like him who were just getting by.
“If someone offered to give you a bunch of money, what would it mean to you? I got out of debt. I hadn’t been out of debt since I started, when I took over the farm at 18, from my dad,” he said.
Miller’s no environmentalist. He installed solar panels so he’d be free of energy bills. It also let him quit milking cows and raise beef cattle instead. It’s a lot less work, and he can still afford to farm.
LONG TERM PLANNING WITH SHALE MONEY
What farmers like these two choose to do with their gas money has been a question for Tim Kelsey, an agricultural economist at Penn State University. He’s not surprised some are taking gas money and investing in solar.
“The nature of farming involves kind of long-term investments,” Kelsey said. “They don’t necessarily expect it to save them money or make them money tomorrow, but they do have a longer view than I think a lot of household folks would.”
Though Marcellus Shale money has swelled the state’s coffers—PA collected $42.6 million in oil and gas-related personal income tax payments in 2010, three times what it made in 2006 at the boom’s start—the state doesn’t keep track of how many farmers have used gas money to buy solar panels.
But Joe Morinville, who owns Energy Independent Solutions, a solar company near Pittsburgh, has done some research of his own. He estimates that 25 percent of his customers are farmers and that of those, many have turned to solar thanks to gas.
“I would say 70 to 80 percent have disclosed that some form of shale money went towards the purchase of the solar equipment,” he said.
Solar arrays can come with a six-figure price tag. So, while investing in solar might be out of reach for a typical farmer, shale money makes it possible.
'NOT FREE ENERGY, BUT CLOSE'
Duane Miller says solar panels are a lot like a gas well. Both are domestic energy sources right there on his land.
“There’s an awful lot of energy that we’re not using in this country that’s here,” he said. “And it’s just a matter of harnessing it, getting the technology to use it. It’s not free energy, but it comes close.”
Dwayne Bauknight isn’t sure he’d sign another lease. He thinks we’re effectively roasting the planet with our use of fossil fuels like natural gas, and that drilling has to stop. But he couldn’t be the only one saying no, he said. He’d be the only one not making money. So for now, he contents himself with building the bridge between fossil fuels and renewable energies, doing what he thinks is best.
“Everybody's got to make up their own private decision,” he said. "It’s between you and your farm.”