From the top of a huge feed pile covered in plastic tarp weighed down with recycled tires, Mike Monteiro takes in the sweep of his 7,000-cow dairy and 1,000 acres of farmland south of Hanford. He can see the manure separator removing solids, which are used as bedding for the cows. He can see front loaders scooping large helpings of hay for the daily feeding. He can see methane bubbling out of a large manure lagoon.
As of Feb. 9, he's been able to see something new - four acres of photovoltaic panels that make Lakeside Dairy the first solar-powered milk farm in Kings County history.
"It was really a no-brainer thing," said Monteiro, co-owner of a family operation that runs the Lakeside Dairy and two more in Tulare County. "It will be all done paying for itself in seven years."
Many dairy operators are content to rely on the grid for their power, used to run water wells, manure separators, milking machines and other equipment. Monteiro wanted to take the idea of self-sufficiency to a different level with his solar system.
But he needed the bottom line to pencil out. It did. He locked in Pacific Gas and Electric incentives in 2009 when they were especially favorable. His lender, Rabobank, was enthusiastic about financing the $3.5 million project that generates 75 percent of the dairy's annual electricity needs.
PG&E credits Monteiro for the extra electricity generated by the panels on sunny days. The whole thing is designed to come close to, but not exceed, his annual power demand. Under existing state law, he can't sell surplus power to the grid.
Monteiro said it cost him virtually nothing out of pocket to build the system. What he really likes about it - along with PG&E - is that it generates power during the hottest part of the day, when he would otherwise be paying the highest electricity rates.
"The main thing I'm looking forward to is cutting my power bill by about 75 percent at the end of the payoff [period]," he said. After 2018, Monteiro's power bill will drop from $22,000 a month to $30,000-$40,000 for the entire year.
"Everybody says, they want to go green," Monteiro said. "For me, It has to pencil out."
Which begs the question: Why haven't more large dairies gone solar?
"The opportunities that solar presents may not be widely known yet," said Gianluca Signorelli, Rabobank vice president of renewable energy finance. "Mike Monteiro is to be applauded."
Monteiro thinks the reluctance had a different source - the big dairy downturn of 2009-2010, an extended period of falling milk prices that put producers in the red for months.
Now there's a further reason for hesitation. The PG&E program that gives Monteiro a lower electricity rate has expired, leaving would-be solar projects with one less financial benefit in the mix. But a 30 percent federal cash grant for projects remains in effect through December, Signorelli said. The price of solar technology is also dropping, he said.
Signorelli thinks solar remains a good sell in Kings County.
"Solar energy technology is established. It's low risk," he said. "It's been proven to perform in the field."
One reason Monteiro went solar is because he didn't need to bother with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. Dairy operators that have tried to run generators with methane gas coming from manure have run into all kinds of problems getting permits from the district.
Monteiro envisions even more self-sufficiency in his operation. He looks at his manure water lagoon and sees the potential for capturing methane and using it to run his diesel-powered vehicles.
"We're do-it-yourselfers. We like doing our own thing," Monteiro said.
The reporter can be reached at 583-2432.