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Iowa solar power company hopes to power the ag industry

Posted September 9

— Dolf Ivener wants to help the planet and revolutionize the way farmers power their farms.

The Sioux City businessman and fifth-generation farmer, who oversees operations outside of Hinton and Whiting, Iowa, recently launched Hog Power Energy.

The new company aims to help pork producers reduce electricity costs in confinements through the use of renewable energy created via a self-contained solar generator system developed and tested by Ivener.

Essentially, it gives producers a chance to implement a microgrid system to a confinement that would lessen but not completely eliminate their dependence on utilities and offset their electricity costs by $300-$500 a month, according to Ivener's estimates.

The all-in-one solar powered system comes packed inside a 20-foot shipping container. Contents of the container include an 11-kilowatt solar panel system that features 40 panels, a battery management system, a 20-kilowatt battery to store excess energy and provide 30 hours of backup power, and a 15-kilowatt inverter that directs the collected energy.

Although the system is suited for any type of ag building, Ivener is specifically targeting hog confinements for now due to how the needs of those structures align with solar's capabilities.

"You see what's running on this hog confinement? Fans," Ivener told the Sioux City Journal . "At night when it's really cool, the fans don't run and you don't need as much electricity. Winter time, none of the fans run — like one fan — so it works perfectly with solar production because it's when their energy consumption is at its most."

While the figure varies by type of building, materials inside of it, its size and its purpose — for example, a finishing barn versus a gestation barn — a typical 1,000-head swine facility uses about 2,000 kilowatt hours a month, according to Jay Harmon, an Iowa State University professor and livestock production specialist for the college's extension program.

Harmon came about that number after he and other researchers associated with the college surveyed a number of producers to try and determine the average electrical use for operating a hog confinement.

"That's ball park anyway," Harmon said.

Determining an average rate is a bit more challenging. Rates vary depending on if a confinement receives service through a private utility, a municipal-owned utility or rural cooperative and the category it is billed under.

However, another study by the University of Minnesota's extension office estimated that energy costs, including gas usage, represent anywhere from 2 to 5 percent of the out-of-pocket costs of raising a pig.

Even though that figure isn't a substantial expense, it is one that can be trimmed, which is where Ivener sees his opportunity.

Advances in battery technology are what have allowed Ivener, a 43-year-old champion of renewables, to create the Hog Power system.

"There's a saying, 'You strike when the iron is hot.'" Ivener said. "And the iron is hot because the technology is getting cheap enough and the utilities don't understand that they might actually have to charge you less money for electricity; they've never done that in the history of electricity."

According to a new report by Morgan Stanley, Ivener's assessment of the market's potential is spot on. The global investment banking firm predicts that the energy storage market is expected to grow from less than $300 million to $4 billion in the next two to three years.

The report goes on to say that, "ultimately there's about a $30 billion market for storage units, with capacity for around 85 gigawatt-hours of power storage. That's enough electricity to light up most of the New York City metro area for a year."

In the past, one of the biggest criticisms against renewable energy sources was the lack of reliable storage. And for solar in particular, that its peak collection times occur opposite of peak electrical usage times, something Ivener has worked to correct.

Through an automated process, a Hog Power unit uses power collected through the solar panels to power whatever structure it is wired into. If the device overproduces, the excess power is shifted to the battery unit, which can also power the building when the sun isn't visible and the panels aren't collecting.

Ivener even developed an accompanying all-inclusive Hog Power Energy mobile application that allows users to track their billing, energy usage, how much energy has been stored and other features.

"It does everything . all on your phone," he said.

Ivener has been tinkering with the Hog Power Energy concept for more than a year. He settled on a shipping container since it was cheaper than most battery cases, portable and large enough to host the entire system.

His jury-rigged prototype Hog Power unit features a desktop computer and batteries he recovered from a wrecked Nissan Leaf — an all-electric vehicle — and is far less sophisticated than the consumer version.

When asked if he thinks a service like Hog Power Energy could have a major impact on the agriculture industry, Harmon noted he needed more information on the product, but from what he heard of it he thought it was a possibility.

"It could be. I don't know what it costs up front or maintenance costs and there are some other things to think about, but it certainly could impact production," he said. "It might be that you could be operating more remotely."

Ivener is confident in his product and allows producers to extensively test out a Hog Power Energy unit before they commit to it.

"Basically, we show up in one day and set the whole system up," he said. "That's them kicking the tires. They're going to get the app on their phone, they'll look at the power they're going to consume and produce. . Then at the end of six weeks, you can either buy it, lease it or we come back, unhook, take the panels off and throw 'em back in the shipping container and drive to (another) confinement and see if I can sell it to him."

Aware there may be skepticism about his system and his intent, Ivener compared the situation to the first time someone bought a refrigerator and he thinks microgrid systems like his will soon become more common.

"The part about spinning the tires in 10 years will be irrelevant because people will be so comfortable it that (it will) be like buying a refrigerator," he said. "This will get us over the leap."

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