Few may have seen them before; they don’t want to stand out. Hutterites—women in bright colored, plain dresses and men in somber, dark jackets and hats. They’re almost always at a local farmer’s market in Montana, South Dakota, and in Alberta, Canada, on a Saturday morning selling fresh eggs, carrots, potatoes, and other vegetables and products of their farm.
This quaint image of a quiet, rural people is challenged by the Green Acres Hutterite solar-powered farming colony in Bassano, Alberta. The pacifist Hutterites emigrated from Eastern Europe to the North American plains during the late 19th century, escaping almost three centuries of religious persecution, like their Anabaptist “cousins,” the Amish.
While the Amish eschew modern technology, the Hutterites have become ambitious, industrial-scale farmers. The Green Acres colony has a population of about 80 people. The colony farms 20,000 acres, and powers its hog and chicken operation, its one-of-a-kind plastics recycling plant, Crowfoot Plastics, and its residences exclusively with solar energy.
The Brothers Hofer
Dan Hofer, the “financial boss” of Green Acres, and his brother, Jake Hofer, Green Acres’ electrician, along with David Vonesch, Chief Operating Officer at SkyFire Energy, the company that installed the colony’s two-megawatt solar system in 2015, are proud to show visitors the solar farm up close.
The more than 7,600 solar modules are quite a sight, rows of them all facing south. It’s a field of blue that just sits there, quietly harvesting light from the sun and powering the colony’s future. “It still blows me away to this day,” mused Jake Hofer. “Yes, you look at the system, day after day, and there’s nothing moving, no moving parts, and yet it creates all this energy.” One of the two megawatts (MW) of solar electricity produced supplies the Crowfoot Plastics recycling plant, while the rest powers the farms’ operations and the colony’s residences.
“You look at the system, day after day, and there’s nothing moving, no moving parts, and yet it creates all this energy.”
Once one understands a bit about Hutterite culture, their embrace of solar power makes perfect sense.
“Every piece of our colony’s livelihood is an asset and is very important,” said Dan Hofer. “You grow and supply your own meat, you grow and supply your own garden and vegetables as much as possible, so [solar power] falls kind of in the same category. It’s self-sufficient. You’re relying on your own resources; you’re not relying on someone else.”
“We did it for economic reasons,” said Dan Hofer. “They [the banks] didn’t have an issue at all. After seeing some of the numbers, how the economics would work out, they were fully supportive.”
As for the environment, Dan Hofer said the clean nature of solar energy is gravy: “We’re all polluters of the land, so it’s good to give something back.”
For solar project developer SkyFire Energy, the project was a first in terms of scale.
“The solar resource here is some of the best in Canada,” said Vonesch. “A system installed right here will produce about 50 or 60 percent more than if the same system were installed in Germany,” the top solar electricity producer in Europe.
The wind resource in Southern Alberta is also among the best in Canada. So why did the colony choose solar and not wind? “Maintenance was one of the big issues,” chuckled Jake Hofer. “And I’m terribly scared of heights.”
Making an Investment for the Future
Thanks to a keen business sense and a DIY attitude, Green Acres pushed the envelope on the cost of the solar. The result should be a payback of their investment in 15 years if electricity prices remain low, or as few as 10 years if they start to escalate, according to Dan Hofer.
“I think because of this system, because of Green Acres taking this leap, we’ve seen increased interest in these types of systems, and this scale of project,” said Vonesch. “It’s taken the ‘what’s possible’ to a new level, and lots of people are looking at it and following suit.”
Intrigued by the economics, people from all over Alberta have visited and taken a cue from the Hutterite solar farm and started projects of their own.
‘Crowfoot Plastics’ Recycling Plant
Green Acres’ commitment to the environment is demonstrated by the plastics recycling plant it owns and operates with electricity sourced from their solar farm. When farmers run out of grain storage space, they like to use gigantic plastic grain bags. These are less expensive than storage buildings. When filled they look like giant “grain sausages” stretched out on farm fields but once they are emptied “these tons of plastic are begging to be recycled,” writes Linda Maendel in her Hutterite blog. The Crowfoot Plastics recycling plant takes those large plastic sheets, cleans them, and turns them into small plastic resin pellets that are used to produce new plastic products, like garbage bags.
The Green Acres Hutterite Colony was a pioneer in securing solar as an investment. Solar is now the cheapest method of generating electricity in the world, and today solar is booming in Alberta.
The Granum Hutterite Colony also got involved with solar by leasing their lands to the Claresholm Solar Project, the largest in Canadian history at the time operations began in October 2021.
The Granum colony made the project more cost-effective by doing one million dollars' worth of work helping build the solar farm. They will also benefit from lease payments that stretch well into the future. The colony’s participation in this project is quite an accomplishment for a community that still grazes their sheep on the same lands (underneath the solar panels) as they have always done.
*David Dodge is an environmental journalist and a photojournalist who has worked for newspapers, published magazines, produced radio, and was the production manager for a Canadian nature publisher. He produced more than 350 award-winning EcoFile radio programs on sustainability for the CKUA Radio network. Find out more about David Dodge’s visit to the Green Acres Colony at https://youtu.be/ZDW2Yg0SOB0.