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Green Cheese: Black Mesa Ranch

Solar panels

Sustainability can be a problem at many dairies, but in this blog series intern Alicia gets the deets on some eco-friendly cheesemakers from across the map. Find out what makes each cheese green, and enter the weekly contest for a chance to win an issue of culture


Solar power sometimes gets a bad rap. The technology can be pricey. The panels take up space. It’s complicated to set up. And yet, the payoff is great. There are no emissions. Sunlight is free and will never run out. And it makes it possible to live off the grid while still enjoying modern-day niceties.

And no one knows this better than David Heininger, cheesemaker at Black Mesa Ranch outside of Snowflake, Arizona. He and his wife Kathryn run a goat dairy completely off the grid, relying on solar and wind power to care for their 125 animals, including Nubian goats, cows, sheep, and chickens.

They’ve been on the property for 14 years, but didn’t start the dairy until 2003. “We had a small off-grid system that started with two arrays of panels, the windmill, and a small generator as back-up. Since then we’ve had to expand it. As we started to grow the dairy, we started adding more panels,” says Heininger.

Black Mesa Ranch solar panels

Black Mesa Ranch solar panels

Their system uses photovoltaic solar power. Sunlight is collected by solar panels containing cells filled with semiconductor materials. These cells translate solar radiation into electricity. An inverter, which converts the electricity from the solar panels into a format that is useable for household appliances, completes their system. Because you cannot produce electricity on a cloudy day with this method, Heininger also uses a battery bank to store excess power as a literal rainy day fund.

Black Mesa Ranch also employs a 900 watt, 50 foot wind generator, which can directly generate electric power 24 hours a day. They also use a diesel powered generator for times when they have especially high energy needs. Maintenance is generally minimal; the battery bank must be equalized on a monthly basis, a process involving overcharging the batteries to keep them running optimally. Though Heininger notes, “The system runs itself on a daily basis, but there’s always something to do.”

battery bank

Black Mesa Ranch battery bank

Though photovoltaic systems can be expensive to implement, costs have dropped 30 percent in the past decade. Heininger estimates he’s invested $30,000 in installation and upkeep costs. He’s also made several improvements over the years, both expanding and replacing current components of their system. “I’m not sure you could push the system further you can go as far as capacity on things. It’s a really good system for what we’re doing, but we’re a really small scale operation,” he says.

However, what’s really driven Black Mesa Ranch’s sustainability efforts is necessity. They live off the grid and the power company has no plans to connect them any time soon. When asked if they would put such effort into sustainability if they were able to connect to the grid, Heininger answers without hesitation. “We would hook into the grid in a flash. The electricity coming through the system is subsidized, it’s by and large reliable and cheap, so it’s smarter from a business perspective.” That may be the case, but the culture staff—and the planet—are grateful for the work the Heiningers are doing in sustainable energy. 

This week’s contest question is: What cheese most reminds you of sunshine? Submit your answer in the comments below by Thursday, March 20 at 12:00p.m. EDT for a chance to win the current issue of culture. The winner will be chosen at random and announced in next week’s Green Cheese post.

Tune in next week to hear from The Cultured Cow Creamery, a North Carolina creamery that aids in the fight against world hunger.

Photo by Compfight

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