Business View Magazine interviews Jim Straeter, Founder of Ag Technologies (SolarCAM), for our focus on Growth of the Solar Industry in America

“In the heart of the Midwestern Corn Belt lies Rochester, Indiana, a rural town that is home to Ag Technologies, a family-owned business founded as a farm equipment and machinery enterprise, and SolarCAM, its patented solar stand, that deals in cutting-edge solar energy solutions.

As solar and other renewables become an increasingly vocal conversation in non-rural America, Ag Technologies founder James (Jim) Straeter believes it’s time for rural America to join in. With wide-open spaces and, in some cases, exceptionally high greenhouse gas emissions, farming communities like the one in Rochester, IN, can play a pivotal role in creating a green economy by adopting renewable energy sources like solar.

But how did a farm equipment and machinery company become a champion for renewable energy in rural America? According to Straeter, it all started with cold showers…

“My dad was a farm equipment dealer, and I moved to Rochester in 1984 to manage a company store for New Holland,” says Straeter. “In 1987, we bought the store, and we’ve managed to grow it to the current seven locations that we have. In 2009 I wanted to experiment with renewable energy as a hobby, so I set up a few windmills, but it soon became clear to me that they were never going to pay themselves back. I built a solar thermal hot water system at my house in 2011 and, at the time, we were all taking some cold showers, something the family was not very pleased with.”

Shortly after realizing wind would not pay off, and dealing with cold showers, Straeter decided to try his luck on solar, especially as he saw how much cheaper it was getting year on year. He recalls, “So, we put up solar here at the farm equipment business in January 2012, putting in an adjustable mounting system. I realized that it actually could pay for itself, which led to the decision, later in the year, to sell and install solar installations commercially.” That decision led to the development of SolarCAM, a trade-marked solar system venture Jim currently runs with one of his sons, Mike, while two other sons run the farm equipment arm of the business.

With a busy team of 15 skilled employees, SolarCAM sells and installs patented solar systems to rural customers in Indiana and the surrounding states. The company specializes in ground-mounted solar systems, with the company’s product standing out because the arrays are adjustable to compensate for the different angles of sunlight throughout the year.

“In 2012, I realized compensating for the angle of the sun was critical to maximizing solar energy production, so I registered and got a patent for that,” says Jim. By 2016, the company had created a turnkey solution that included planning and mapping, construction of small (residential) and large (commercial) projects, system monitoring, and grant applications. Since then, they’ve grown the business year over year, as more rural customers realize they have the space and need for renewable energy.

Part of the sales pitch the SolarCAM team applies when selling solar to rural customers is the cost benefit. As Jim explains, rural customers are less inclined to put in solar for ideological reasons but will do so if it makes monetary sense. He notes, “We sell solar systems based on the monetary return. We tell the customer, ‘here is your payback; it might not pay you back in one or two years, but after 7 to 10 years, you’ll have broken even.’ Any environmental benefit is just icing on the cake.”

Ag Technologies undertakes a feasibility study during each project and handles everything from planning and permitting to construction and commissioning. “We have two crews who handle all our projects, most of which are in northern Indiana,” says Mike Straeter. “When Illinois had incentives, we did a lot of work there, but we’ve slowed down on that as we wait for the current energy legislation to go through.”

One of the significant benefits Ag Technologies sees from installing solar systems in a rural market is the lack of substantial competition. “When we started, there wasn’t much competition,” shares Mike. “Now, there are currently less than ten installers in Indiana, most of whom are family-owned businesses that are more of resellers than turnkey solution providers. However, we are now seeing larger corporations coming in from Indianapolis and other big cities in the area that are doing smaller installations with long-term financing.”

As competition mounts, SolarCAM plans on sticking to its roots of serving rural customers with a unique product that other outfits cannot copy. The company relies on word-of-mouth marketing as an effective means of growth, a marketing channel that Jim feels sells their product based on merit and not marketing hype. “Our customers telling prospective customers that we can be trusted – that we will do what we say we will do is by far our strongest sales path, bringing in close to 90 percent of all our business.”

On the future of solar in rural areas, Jim sees vast potential not only at an individual farm level but also at an energy utility level. “Solar storage (batteries) has received a lot of publicity,” he says, “especially because it’s such a critical part of the future of renewables.” Currently, SolarCAM is working on a five-acre utility-scale solar project with the Fulton County rural utility to install two Tesla Megapack batteries and link them to the grid. “We are around 99% done with the project and just need to finalize the commissioning of the Megapack batteries and energization before going live,” Jim adds. “Once up and running, it will save the utility tens of thousands of dollars per month on-demand charges, paying itself back fairly quickly.”

Although small and new to the utility-level solar game, Ag Technologies is proud to be a pioneer of utility-scale solar installations in Indiana, working alongside a local utility and Tesla, the largest solar battery company globally. “They (Tesla and Fulton County) have a lot of confidence in what we do, despite the small size of our company,” says Jim. “Yes, it is scary putting in the first utility-scale solar system with storage in the state of Indiana, but our communications with Tesla have been excellent. They understand this is our first rodeo, and they want it to be as successful as we do. All the folks that we talked to at Tesla have been down to earth and very helpful.”

For Ag Technologies, the COVID-19 pandemic did not have that much effect because of a combination of rural area layouts and ground-mounted installation, which made social distancing easy. “We sailed right through the pandemic,” admits Jim. “Aside from one crew getting infected, our business continued growing through the last year and a half, with 2021 expected to be our best year yet.”

In addition to continued external growth, the company is also buoyed by the number of patents Jim holds, a strong foundation the company is building on. He reports, “I have 20 solo utility patents in energy and agriculture. The biggest challenge I have is that there isn’t enough time to pursue everything at once. For now, I must concentrate on keeping my SolarCAM guys busy, so that’s my current focus.”

At 70 years of age, Jim is an active contributor to the SolarCAM business. Still, he hopes to relinquish more responsibilities to Mike as the company transitions to the next generation. “My top wish for the next five to seven years is not to be as involved in the company as I am now,” he says. “I hope to continue contributing to the company intellectually but have the rest of the team handle growth and installations.”

On Mike’s part, his vision is to get more installations under their belt by widening their market reach and hiring more crews. He sums it up by saying, “Our current team is great, so I hope we can continue to bring in equally good people to support our future growth.””

This article is part of Business View Magazine’s Clean and Green (Volume 8, Issue 10) publication and was produced on October 3, 2021.

Home and business owners in rural Fulton County will have the sun to thank for lower utility costs.

The company behind an advanced solar and energy storage facility says the project will pay for itself and be a valuable educational tool for kids.

The system in Talma is setting a new standard in the area for energy independence.

It is, and beyond that it’s improving the reliability of the energy grid.

“This will be a huge financial benefit for the Fulton County REMC members. Of course the environmental benefit we always say is icing on the cake,” said Jim Straeter, Ag Technologies Inc. founder.

Jim Straeter says the advanced solar and storage facility will save members money on day one.

The Fulton County Rural Electric Membership Corporation is a non-profit that provides energy to nearly 5,000 homes.

Any money saved goes directly back to members of the REMC.

Fulton County REMC CEO Joe Koch says members can expect to save up to 8 million dollars, not including the project paying itself off.

He says Indiana is the perfect place for solar projects.

“Indiana – everybody thinks the sun doesn’t shine that much, but actually in the winter time because its cooler it increases the efficiency of the solar panels.”

Koch says it’s that efficiency along with location that makes Indiana appealing for solar and wind projects.

The extra energy can be sold to Chicago, Cincinnati, and even New York which makes Indiana a powerhouse.

Straeter says the battery storage allows them to reduce blackouts during peak use times.

When fully charged, the two Tesla batteries can power 2,200 homes for a month, which can be the difference between life and death during an ice storm.

“This kind of battery can energize this wire and keep these people safe and warm and that sort of thing.”

This project will be even more environmentally friendly because they plan to grow plants that attract pollinators like honeybees and butterflies.

This story originally appeared on WSBT.com: Fulton County solar energy project expected to lower utility costs | WSBT

TALMA, Ind. (WNDU) – An exciting day in Talma — a crowd gathers for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the completion of a solar and storage facility.

The project was developed by AG Technologies, in conjunction with Fulton County REMC, and took about a year to complete.

Energy storage is accomplished with two Tesla Megapack batteries – each weighing 56,000 pounds, and will power roughly 2,200 homes for a month.

“They store that kind of energy because when the grid — the electric demand, people coming home from work — really peaks, energy is very expensive,” says Jim Straeter, President of AG Technologies.

“So it went through very smoothly. It’s got a very positive discussion in the community. We cant wait to prove that it’s as good as they said it was going to be.”

Because it’s cheaper energy, it will save the average customer every time they get a bill.

“It will reduce rates,” says Straeter. “Solar is the cheapest energy that can be produced right now. Everybody talks about the carbon reduction and that’s an important part.”

Earlier in the week, a solar farm project was approved in Pulaski County. That particular project, however, faced some backlash.

This story originally appeared on wndu.com: Solar farm & storage facility ribbon-cutting in Fulton County (wndu.com)

At the 2021 Indiana State Fair, Hoosiers for Renewables asked Ag Technologies, Inc. to participate in a solar exhibit at the Normandy Barn. We were given the honor of having our SolarCAM solar array selected to be on display at the exhibit for the duration of the fair. The Hoosiers for Renewables solar exhibit also featured interactive Microgrid trainers and many solar developers and providers from all over Indiana, including our team, were given the opportunity to help educate the public on solar energy.

Pictured from left to right: Indiana State Governor Eric Holcomb, Assistant Director of Hoosiers for Renewables Connie Neininger, and Director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture Bruce Kettler.

During the fair Governor Eric Holcomb made a stop at the solar exhibit where he took the opportunity to have his photo taken with the Solarcam solar array. The governor stopping by to see it speaks to the importance of solar in today’s world. We are very thankful to have had this opportunity and it is our goal to continue to grow solar in the state of Indiana. Thank you to our faithful customers who could make this possible.

WATERLOO — Covington Box and Packaging Inc. is saving money and the environment with a field of solar panels covering 1.4 acres outside its factory in Waterloo.

Read more

From renewable power generation to clean fuels, education driving sustainability projects in Region

Ozinga Energy
Ozinga Energy recognized the benefits of compressed natural gas or CNG in 2011 and has expanded its offerings ever since. It operates this fueling station in Gary. (Photo provided by Ozinga)

Hoosiers throughout the Region continue to make energy efficiency and environmental consciousness a priority. From utilities to transportation, clean energy is in growth mode in Northwest Indiana.

Read more
Wawawsee Community School Superintendent Thomas Edington, in back, and James Flecker, director of personnel and legal services for Wawasee Community Schools, stand in front of an array of solar panels being installed in the field by the transportation building. The high school will be serviced by five rows of 12 arrays for a total of 60 arrays. The solar system can be tilted to follow the sun and maximize the capacity to collect solar energy.

SYRACUSE — When budgets get tighter it sometimes calls for creative thinking and that’s what administrators at Wawasee Community Schools engaged in with their decision to bring solar energy to the school system.

Superintendent of Wawasee Community Schools Thomas Edington said, “Because of state funding lagging” they needed “to look at fixed assets and electricity was increasing each year.”

Read more

Ensemble is the energy management technology from Enphase that enables solar, storage and the grid to seamlessly work together to ensure clean, reliable, economical and safe energy. Watch this video to see the future of energy:

Read more

Solar Panel System Presentation by Jim Straeter This is a solar panel system presentation covering current topics on solar energy, solar systems, storage solutions, and what changes are happening in the solar industry today. Presented by Jim Straeter, President of Ag Technologies Inc. and inventor of the SolarCAM ground-mount solar system.

Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation is planning to use solar energy to offset the cost of electricity at Mentone Elementary School.

TVSC installed a 44-panel solar array on 1.5 acres of school property northeast of the school. The estimated annual energy output of the solar array will be enough to power the entire school. It is expected to officially begin producing electricity sometime in March. Read more