How a Texas Farm is Using Solar Energy to Become Self-Sustainable

The past few years have been rough for Texas’ electric grid due to the state’s infrastructure being unprepared for the harsh winter weather. Gracie Cavnar wanted solar panels to keep the produce-filled refrigerators running if there was a power outage at her nonprofit urban farm, and build a resiliency plan because of the troubled Texas grid.

Solar energy has exploded in Texas over the past few years, with installed capacity nearly doubling in the last year.

The Solar Energy Industries Association reports Texas has more than 18,000 megawatts of utility-scale solar farms and individual home installations, enough to power 3.6 million homes on a hot summer day, according to the state’s grid operator.

Hope Farms uses 4 kilowatt-hours of electricity a day on average, which is much less than the energy used by an average home in 2021.

She enlisted Gabriel Cuadra, who teaches a new solar installation continuing education course at Houston Community College and who happens to live in an off-grid house himself powered by solar energy. At first, he said, they were just trying to power the farm’s three composting toilets.

“Gracie’s requirements were fairly unique,” Cuadra said at an event Tuesday unveiling the solar power system. “She had solar panels already that she wanted to make use of, but the solar panels could do a lot more than just the new (electricity) load for the loo, and so we didn’t want to shortchange the system.”

Cavnar wanted a solar system that could operate independently of the state’s electric grid to make her farm self-sustainable. She wanted the solar panels to keep the produce-filled refrigerators running even if there was a power outage, which is common during extreme weather conditions. Her requirement was fulfilled through a $128,000 grant awarded to Hope Farms from retail electricity provider Green Mountain Energy, whose parent company is Houston-based NRG Energy. The grant helped fund the solar system through a program called the Sun Club.

Installing a solar system has several benefits for farms. The primary benefit is that a solar system can create a reliable power source independent of the electric grid. This benefit is critical for farms that need energy to keep refrigerators running to store produce or power other vital equipment to maintain the farm. A solar system can also reduce the risk of power outages and the costs associated with purchasing electricity from a utility company. Additionally, solar energy can reduce a farm’s environmental footprint, making farms more sustainable.

She soon realized the panels could provide another needed asset on the seven acre Hope Farms site in Sunnyside: shade.

“We built this beautiful pergola off of our barn, and the solar panels will shade the entire pergola,” Cavnar said on a sunny 100-degree Houston afternoon. “So they’re capturing the sun, and then they’re creating really critically needed shade.”

The use of solar energy by farms like Hope Farms can also benefit the community by providing access to locally grown produce that is not only fresh but also sustainably grown. These farms can become a vital source of nutritious food in urban areas, where access to fresh produce can be limited and prohibitively expensive. This system has been essential to Hope Farms, as the organization is dedicated to providing healthy food options to locals who need them the most.

The integration of solar energy is part of the growing movement towards renewable energy in Texas. With the challenges that the state has faced, including the recent winter storm, alternative energy options are becoming more necessary. Gracie Cavnar’s use of solar panels has not only made Hope Farms self-sustainable, but it also exemplifies the potential benefits of solar energy for farms and urban communities. Solar energy can foster self-reliance and lead to a greener, more sustainable future for Texas and beyond.