LITTLE HOCKING - A decade ago, Mike Neeley started using solar panels to generate power at Bramble Creek Farm, the Little Hocking farm he owns with his wife, Jackie LeBerth.
He kept finding more uses for the renewable energy, and after being laid off last year, he's using his knowledge and ingenuity in a new venture for the couple's Bramble Creek Enterprises.
"Solar use is really limited only by one's imagination," Neeley said.
Neeley's imagination has conjured small trailers he's assembled with three 15-watt solar panels. The trailers can be used to power small sheds and for other uses around the farm. He also hopes to market them to eco-friendly weekend campers by fixing the trailers up to run laptops, game systems, cell phone chargers, coolers, electric skillets and more.
LeBerth encouraged her husband to use his solar knowhow in a commercial context.
"Mike's always had an interest in renewable energy. ... It just seems like the market for renewables keeps growing," she said, adding that prices are coming down and the amount of energy that can be produced is going up.
Neeley has used one of the trailers to light the workshop at his home and power the tools in it as he builds another product, a metal, raised-bed structure that allows people to keep gardening beyond the normal seasons thanks to a detachable greenhouse cover. He's already delivered these items to customers in Columbus and even Indiana.
"People (are) growing stuff in them right now, growing onions, tomato plants and radishes," Neeley said.
LeBerth noted the raised beds are also beneficial to the aging baby boomers, like she and her husband, who are interested in gardening, because their 16-inch height was selected to minimize the strain of bending.
Protecting the environment has long been a concern in Bramble Creek's ventures, Neeley said. Their farm is chemical-free, and they use certified organic pesticides.
"We believe that if you have been fortunate enough to own a piece of property, that you need to be a steward of the land, that you should take care of that land, because they don't make any more land," he said.
Neeley's first foray into solar technology began 10 years ago, when he and his wife wanted to build a new horse barn on their farm. Told it would cost $2,700 to put an electric pole at the site, Neeley said he did some research and bought a pair of solar panels and other equipment for about $600.
The 12-volt panels have powered the lights in the barn and the water-pumping system ever since. Neeley said his only maintenance costs have been replacing the batteries the panels charge after eight years.
Six years later, when his wife decided to add an acre of produce near the field where the couple's commercial blackberries grow, Neeley assembled another "solar system," as he calls it, on a 5-by-10-foot trailer with a 250-gallon tank and water pump. LeBerth could hook the trailer up to a tractor and provide water for the produce patch's irrigation system. Later, Neeley added a spraying system with shower nozzles on the same trailer, allowing her to water the fields.
The trailer has also been used over the years to provide power for lights, a portable television and other amenities for his grandchildren's overnight camping trips on the farm.
"They'll run all night and just barely drain the battery," Neeley said.
Now the couple is building an electric tractor, to be charged off the same trailer, to which Neeley is adding four more solar panels.
Neeley's affinity for solar power is green from the perspective of the environment and his budget. Prior to converting his workshop to solar power, he said, the monthly electrical bills at his house were in the $130 to $140 range. After, they dropped to about $80.
Some may wonder how reliable solar panels are at night, but Neeley said they do just fine.
"I've worked out 'til midnight or 1 o'clock in the morning trying to get stuff finished ... and I've never run out of power," he said.
The key is monitoring how much power you're storing and how much you're using, Neeley said. He likens it to a savings account - you can't keep withdrawing more than you deposit.
"With solar there's a point where you are using more than the system will create," he said. "You just have to know what you're using it for."
He also noted that newer solar panels still do well absorbing light even on cloudy days.
More information about Neeley's products are available by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.