Editor’s note: This is the ninth story in a series exploring how ranchers and farmers are benefiting from renewable energy.
By Robert Waggener
The acreage in southeast Montana seemed like a bargain, so cattle producer Scott Green couldn’t resist checking it out.
“Though the land was ideal summer pasture for cattle, it had no water,” Green says. “And this is in an area where you can punch a well and get very little to no water.”
Wishing to expand their operation, Green and his wife, Durene, decided to buy the 1,000-plus acres near Huntley, but knew it would take ingenuity to make the land pay its way.
That ingenuity came in the form of solar power, potential and kinetic energy (think roller coaster) and a bust in North Dakota’s famous Bakken oil play.
This unusual mixture helped pave the way for the couple to bolster their commercial herd of Black Angus, and it will give ranchers some food for thought when it comes to renewable energy.
The Greens teamed with Philip Botch, owner of Arrow Creek Excavation and Irrigation based in Arrow Creek, Mont., to develop a solar well and water storage system allowing the couple to run 110 pairs on the property from June through October. Another solar development has improved their management capabilities on land near Billings, Mont., used for late-fall, winter and early-spring pasture.
“For situations like ours, renewable is really a great way to go,” says Green, who maintains a day job to help support his ranching business.
INNOVATION PAYS: Montana cattle producers Scott and Durene Green, working with contractors, installed a new 16,300-gallon oilfield storage tank on top of a hill, and a solar-powered well development at the base of the hill to provide stock water during successive days of total overcast. Near the well are two 13-foot rubber tire stock tanks to hold water for cattle.
Weird combination works
Green worked with Botch and others to develop a well-thought-out and -executed plan that would make his land purchase economically viable. This started by strategically drilling an 80-foot-deep well at the bottom of a hill.
The solar-powered well produces 8 gallons of water per minute on sunny days, but virtually no water on cloudy days. This is where additional planning really paid off. That planning would take advantage of the physics of potential and kinetic energy, along with North Dakota’s energy bust. Together, they would provide an economic way to ensure cattle have water during successive days of overcast skies.
Green purchased a 16,300-gallon oilfield storage tank during the Bakken oil bust for $5,000, which included delivery to his land in southeast Montana.
“That is very cheap for a brand-new, quality tank delivered to your ranch,” Green says.
To accommodate a water line, Botch and his crews buried the 20-foot-tall tank 4 feet underground on top of the hill, which is 90 vertical feet in elevation above the well.
They ran 800 feet of high-density polyethylene pipe from the tank to the well in a 3-foot-deep trench. Since this pasture isn’t used during winter, burying the pipe and storage tank under frost line wasn’t necessary.
They also installed two 13-foot rubber tire stock tanks near the well, and plans are already underway for a third tire development.
During sunny days, the solar-powered pump pushes water uphill to fill the large storage tank, which, in turn, provides stock water during cloudy days when minimal water is being pumped.
“We helped Scott install this system in April 2017, and he is very happy with how it’s working,” Botch says. “An electric system would have been horrendously expensive because it would have involved installing a power line one-and-a-half miles long.”
Botch adds, “In situations like this, the most practical thing, hands-down, is solar power. I know that other cattle ranchers could install systems like this if they have the right topography and good sunshine.”
Green says the entire system cost about $20,000, which included the well, pump, solar panels, storage tank, water line and installation.
“If I were to lease that pasture out at $30 a pair, it would only take two to three years to pay the system off,” Green says. “In my opinion, this land would not have been usable for cattle without a system like this. It is working great, and it allows me the opportunity to expand; since the storage tank is on top of a hill, it can provide water to another pasture.”
How the hilltop system works
During sunny days, three solar panels each producing about 190 watts of electricity power a Grundfos pump.
The pump, in turn, pushes about 8 gallons per minute of water 800 linear feet uphill to a 16,300-gallon storage tank. The tank is on top of a hill that is 90 vertical feet above the wellhead.
Botch explains that as the water is being pushed uphill, it builds potential energy similar to a roller coaster on its initial ascent.
“If the tank has no water in it, the pump will push water all the way up the hill as long as the sun is shining,” Botch says. “There is a float in the storage tank — and if there is no demand for water, the pump will shut off, which results in no water waste.”
When cattle begin drinking water from the two 13-foot rubber tire stock tanks at the base of the hill, the pump is activated once the water in the storage tank on top of the hill drops to a certain level.
“If the sun is shining, the pump will first fill up the two stock tanks; and once those are full, the water starts going uphill in the underground line to fill the storage tank itself,” Botch says.
The float valve in the storage tank on top of the hill opens when cattle begin drawing water out of the tire tanks on cloudy days. When this happens, gravity pulls water from the tank back down the hill, similar to a roller coaster changing potential energy to kinetic energy on the descent.
“On cloudy days, this is simply a gravity-fed system. As long as there is water in the storage tank, you have potential energy. This solar installation uses no batteries to provide backup power to the pump,” Botch says. “Batteries typically wear out in about five years, and batteries are very pricey.”
The system currently serves a 640-acre pasture. Rancher Green says that the solar-powered well and two tire tanks would have allowed him to run only 30 pairs.
But the 16,300-gallon tank on top of the hill, combined with the two tire stock tanks, allows him to graze 110 pairs. This combination collectively provides enough stored water to last for five days without sunshine to power the pump.
“This system will allow me to run a water line over a ridge to another pasture,” Green says. “The topography of the land, combined with solar technology, makes projects like this extremely viable.”
Waggener writes from Laramie, Wyo.