NASHVILLE - Dozens of farms and small businesses in Tennessee have received Agriculture Department grants to develop solar power systems that can contribute to local energy grids.
According to a department report, the Rural Energy for America Program has paid $6.5 million in grants and loans to Tennessee farms, ranches and rural small businesses in the past three years.
The Tennessean reported that 69 of Tennessee's 98 grants and loans have gone to solar projects. Recipients include a custom saddler in Lebanon, a native species nursery in Fairview and a recreational team-building center in Kingston Springs.
Mike and Sharon Weesner received a grant for $19,073 for the solar panels installed on the roof of their horse barn at their 180-acre Hardscuffle Farm, near the border between Hickman and Williamson counties.
They also have received $7,000 from the local power company for contributing energy into the area's power grid.
"It's always fun to open that and see [they] owe me money," Mike Weesner said of his monthly electric bill.
The farm has 120 rooftop solar panels, and the Weesners might add more. The couple is applying for more money to add panels to another barn, with help from the local USDA office.
The couple used three government grants that paid for about 60 percent of their $161,000 installation. The farm is expected to recover the couple's out-of-pocket costs in about five years.
Workers at the farm also are digging wells for geothermal heating for the Weesners' home, with high-efficiency LED lighting and insulation on the inside.
Without government funding, few small renewable-energy projects would be affordable, Mike Weesner said.
USDA officials who toured the farm call it an exemplary rural project.
"The new economy is built to last because it's fueled by homegrown, alternative energy sources," said USDA Rural Development State Director Bobby Goode.