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November 1, 2014

SHELBY SHARES: Turkeys, avionics and renewable energy in Starbuck, Minn.

Take a poultry farmer from Starbuck, Minnesota with an affinity for flying, and you might end up with one of the most notable renewable energy success stories in the state, if not the nation.

Randy Hagen is a farmboy. He raises turkey hatchlings for some of the biggest turkey producers around. He also likes flying. He is an instrument-rated pilot.

Instruments are delicate things. If the avionics in a cockpit (which can often cost as much as the plane itself) heat up from too much sun, they can fry. When your instruments are fried, flying can lose its romance.

“The instructors would tell me, don’t fire up the instruments if the cockpit is hot,” remembers Randy.

He thought about his turkeys. They shouldn’t get hot either.

“We use negative pressure in the turkey buildings to keep them cool.” So, he thought, why not install a small version of the big fans in the barn inside the cockpit. Just open the vents on the wings and let the fan draw out the hot air. Like the turkeys, the avionics would not overheat.

So, Hagen invented the fan at the farm in Starbuck. It worked. But, it would take an awfully long run of extension cord to stretch to the plane on the tarmac. That’s when he thought of using the light of the sun against itself.

He investigated and found a thin-film solar manufacturer in Iowa who made a solar cell that would fit  in the cockpit and run the fan. He sold the idea to a manufacturer and he still gets a little piece of each sale.

That device was a photovoltaic cell. It produces electricity. But, what Hagen thought of next was creating hot water from the sun. Of course, others had thought of it long ago. Folks still take showers from oil drums filled with water. You paint them black and put them on the roof, and the sun does the rest.

I thought I’d invented solar thermal when, as a kid, I took a drink from the black garden hose one sunny day. The first drink was nearly boiling. The sun heated the black hose, which heated the water, which heated my tongue.

Hagen bought a couple of solar thermal units and put them up on his roof in Starbuck. They worked like a charm. Heated the water, heated the workshop and heated up his imagination. He scoured the country and found a company in Florida making solar thermal panels and bought the license to employ its technology.

He started a company. He already had the name Solarskies. That was the name of the company that was going to make the cockpit fan.

He set up shop in Alexandria and people all over the country are buying his water heating solar panels. Here’s why: They can meet all your hot water needs without burning any fuels or paying the utility bills. They can heat your house.

Businesses that use lots of hot water, manufacturers, agricultural operations can save big money.

The technology is simple. Think garden hose memory. Let’s say you needed boiling water. Conventionally, one would pump up ground water at 40 to 50 degrees and heat it up to 212 degrees. You would require enough fuel to raise the water temperature by 160 degrees or so. But, what if the water coming into the system was already 140 degrees. It would take a lot less fuel to raise it by 70
degrees.

But, most places don’t need boiling water on demand. Most places can exist just fine with the temperature delivered by the sun alone.

Standard for these Solarskies units is better than 140 degrees in summer and about 120 degrees in the winter months, sometimes higher on clear days.

Hagen says, “A unit for a new home costs about $8 to $10,000. You can fold that in to your mortgage. The result of the immediate savings is that you cash flow the first day.”

That’s business talk for happy days are here again. And, the sun is doing all the work. That’s where the savings are. The sunlight, until further notice, is free of charge.

Most water heating is done with natural gas, and right now, natural gas is cheaper than it used to be.But, not long ago, Randy met with U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. “He told me,” says Hagen, “it is not sustainable.”

The point Hagen is trying to make is that the sun is sustainable and doesn’t fluctuate in price.

“We are a small company playing on the national stage,” says Hagen. He says China currently owns 60% of the world market and Europe has about 18 percent. The U.S. has only about eight percent, and Hagen intends to be a big player on that stage. He’s got some new ideas on how to make the systems better and even more affordable.

He says, “It’s a secret right now.”

The poultry farmer still raises hatchlings. “In the renewable energy business,” he says, “It’s good to keep your day job.”

It has been a long haul for Hagen. He’s put a lot of his own money into making Solarskies work. He confesses that his life would
probably have been better if he hadn’t followed this dream, but he say he doesn’t have much of a choice. “I want to be proud talking to my kids,” he says.

“This is something to be proud of.” Hagen isn’t talking about making a fortune. He says
there are better reasons to think about a renewable energy future.

“It might be a better climate, you might want to save money, you might not want your kids fighting wars over oil, you might just want cheaper energy prices.”

Now, that’s talking turkey.