From Wind to Sun: Replacing Windmills with Solar-Powered Water Pumps
By Kristin Lewis Hawkins
The striking silhouette of a windmill standing sentinel over the fields and pastures of rural America is one of the more enduring images of agricultural life. It’s a simple idea that symbolizes generations of history and hard work on farms, ranches and small communities. The tools and methods may change, but the basics of providing food and fiber for the world stays the same.
The technology driving windmills hasn’t changed much in decades, as well. Since European immigrants imported and adapted the design to pump water from wells for American agriculture, improvements have been made to the materials used in their manufacture to increase durability and efficiency. It’s hard to improve on an idea that works.
The results of our recent informal polling for The Cattleman Cross Section revealed that quite a few respondents use electricity to power water wells. However, there are situations where water pumps cannot run on electricity. Getting water to cattle in remote locations when access to ponds or tanks isn’t possible has previously meant installation of windmills or running miles of pipe from an electric pump.
But what if your location doesn’t get consistent wind or a windmill isn’t feasible for your operation?
As solar panel technology has evolved and improved, prices have decreased and the option to convert water well pumps to solar has risen in popularity and availability for ranch use. Depending on the depth of your groundwater, static water level and required water output, a solar-powered water pump could be an option that pays for itself over time with lower maintenance and decreased labor costs.
Solar systems don’t have moving parts to wear out or towers that require climbing. And most systems can still operate on cloudy or overcast days. The wind may not always blow, but the sun will always rise, even when hidden behind clouds.
If your pump will be producing water to be stored in a cistern, pond or tank for livestock, reliability and consistency are two valuable considerations when deciding how to power that pump.
Good wind, little water, a lot of sun
Jimmy Sterling of the Sterling Cattle Company headquartered in Coahoma, Texas, oversees the operation’s more than 215,000 acres of leased and deeded rangeland in West Texas. Since 1991, Sterling has been improving deeded and leased land by controlling brush reseeding, rotational grazing and adhering to proper stocking rates. His conservation practices have included improving the quality and quantity of water, which has helped habitats for game birds and deer species.
In a dry area that sees approximately 14 inches of rain a year, water is a vital — and often costly — commodity. Sterling has been replacing their many windmills with solar pumps to improve the reliability and performance of his water wells.
“We’ve been really happy with it,” Sterling said. “I’ve got one pump that’s on a well 100 feet deep that pushes water four miles to four troughs up a 35-degree incline. The well’s output is 10 gallons a minute at the backside, so that’s hard to beat.”
Sterling said the main factor in the switch to solar was cost.
“In the end, it’s a lot cheaper. Instead of replacing windmill gears and worn out parts every nine months, there’s not much to fix on a solar well. Once it’s set up, it’s ready to go and it’ll just keep going. The only problems we’ve had are with lightning and fire, but not much can survive that,” he laughed. “Especially out here.”
Sterling counts reliability and decreased cost as two big plusses in the solar column. “We don’t need to drive out to each location to do maintenance or make sure the cattle have enough water. That saves a lot of time, money and worry.
“Plus, it can really cut down on energy costs,” Sterling added. “Not having to run the pumps on electricity and paying that bill means a lot. Once you’ve installed your system, there isn’t much else to do for maintenance or labor. And we don’t have to check up on it as much to make sure things are working.”
Too much of a good thing
Wind is also a valuable commodity when relying on a windmill to power your water wells. But what if you get too much wind? Ranchers along the Gulf Coast regularly find their windmills destroyed after tropical storms and hurricanes.
Even far away from the coast, Texas and Oklahoma are known for wind storms, and repairing or replacing a windmill mangled by a downburst or spring storm can come at quite a cost, especially if you rely solely on wind power to water your cattle.
And with a large-scale event like a hurricane, the cost of replacement or repair of numerous systems can overwhelm any operation. Plus, finding professional windmill technicians to do repairs or replace aging or broken wind-driven systems can be difficult enough when the weather is good.
Diebel Cattle Company, a fifth-generation beef cattle, wildlife and hay production operation in Victoria, took a hit from Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The century-old ranch withstood the historic storm’s destructive winds and floods, but all their windmills on the ranch’s 15,000 owned and leased acres were destroyed.
Stephen Diebel, ranch owner and operator, had already begun the process of upgrading from wind-powered pumps to solar when Harvey blew through.
“The costs of repairing windmills were only going up, so I knew it was time to look at making the switch,” said Diebel. “We’d already started converting some of them, but the hurricane forced my hand.”
Even though Diebel said it was a lot to undertake at one time, in the end, it was a great opportunity to make the operation more efficient and reliable. “It was a lot of out-of-pocket expense all at once, but over time, we’ll be in much better shape. We were lucky that the solar systems we had already put in before the storm survived. They were rated higher than the wind we got, so they were fine, and that was at least one less thing to worry about.”
Another factor in his decision to make the switch to solar was the difficulty of finding folks who could install and work on windmills in his area. “We have outfits that still do it, but it’s very costly,” he said. “That gets even harder after a big storm.”
Diebel said he sought replacement help after Hurricane Harvey from a variety of cost-share programs, including the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and the local soil and water conservation district, agencies with whom he had previously worked.
“They came through and were a big help. There are programs out there, and they may not be fast, but it can definitely be worth it to give them a call,” Diebel said.
Solar systems can be scaled to fit your budget — large, medium and small. If energy requirements increase, solar panels can be added. The technology is quickly becoming more user-friendly and affordable.
With few moving parts to break or wear out, very little maintenance or monitoring required, and buy-in at or below traditional windmill prices, solar can be the most reliable and affordable way to pump water for your livestock.
From Wind to Sun is excerpted from the May 2018 issue of The Cattleman magazine.