Cattle ranchers are herding more than sheep and cattle—they’re rounding up the power of the sun. Farmers too are harvesting the sun’s rays to increase their energy independence and power their farming operations.
In Cottonwood, Calif., rancher Bill Gibson installed solar panels to generate energy for his 1,000-acre ranch. Though a majority of the family’s power is derived from their 44 solar panels, the Gibsons are still connected to the grid through a PG&E receiver, which can provide backup power if needed. The solar energy is used to offset the Gibsons’ $250 monthly energy bill, which covers the air conditioning and general operations of the family ranch.
Solar panels have been the most prominent way to produce on-farm renewable energy, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 2011 On-Farm Energy Production Survey. While solar electric made the most sense when running utility lines was not feasible or too costly, today’s solar capabilities offer new prospects. “Distributed generation, backup in the case of utility grid outage, and net metering present further opportunities for grid-connected solar energy use in agricultural settings,” the USDA states.
Solar Energy Grants for Farmers and Ranchers
The USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) provides grants and loan guarantees to farmers, ranchers and rural small businesses. They can cover up to 25 percent of eligible projects, and are awarded on a competitive basis. REAP funds can be used for a variety of solar thermal projects—which utilize the sun’s energy to heat hot water and hot air for on-farm uses—as well solar electric projects that collect the sun’s rays through photovoltaic (PV) panels to provide power.
Amaral Ranches, a family-owned farm that grows cabbage, corn and watermelon, installed a 605 kilowatt system that offsets more than 70 percent of the farm’s growing and cold storage operations. “We had never considered solar in the past, but the savings were too big to ignore, especially due to the seasonal nature of our business,” Carlos Amaral said. “The system has delivered impressive savings so far while helping us reduce our environmental footprint.”
On farms and ranches, solar energy can be used for water pumping and irrigation, as well as building needs such as heating and cooling. The clean energy heat greenhouses, dry crops, operate task lights and power feeders and sprayers. Stand-alone solar arrays can provide ventilation for livestock buildings and storage sheds, and even power batteries in seldom-used vehicles or farm equipment.
Solar Power Plants on Farmland
Farms are also an attractive location for solar power plants. Arno Harris, CEO of Recurrent Energy says farms often provide all the conditions necessary for a solar plant: nearby transmission lines, easy road access, positive community reaction and clearly-defined ownership.
In Elk Grove, Calif., Glenda Stewart was approached by Recurrent Energy to see if she would allow a 15 megawatt solar plant to be constructed on her family’s 120-acre farm. Initially skeptical, Stewart ultimately agreed to the solar project because she “liked the idea that the community would get green energy.” Harris recognizes that many landowners are concerned about keeping their land unspoiled. However, after the 20-year solar lease expires, the Stewart’s land can be restored to agricultural use.
Recurrent Energy’s strategy is to target larger farms with lower-value farmland, and assure the owners that the solar arrays will not inhibit any agricultural or grazing activities. “It’s a way of getting yield from land that’s not paying enough,” Harris tells CNBC. In North American, farmland in Arizona and Texas is especially appealing as solar energy approaches grid parity in a post-subsidy era.
Installing Solar Panels with Shale Gas Money
In Pennsylvania, farmers are commonly approached about leasing their land for shale gas drilling. Duane Miller, whose family has been farming in Washington County for five generations, was offered $2,250 an acre for the gas lease with Range Resources. That’s quite the increase from the $3 per acre his family received from their first land lease.
Miller used the shale gas money to install solar panels so he would “be free of energy bills.” He’s been able to get out of debt, and raise beef cattle instead of milking cows—which is a lot less work—and he can still afford to farm.
Miller is pleased that two domestic sources of energy are harvested on his farmland. “There’s an awful lot of energy that we’re not using in this country that’s here,” he told The Allegheny Front. “And it’s just a matter of harnessing it, getting the technology to use it. It’s not free energy, but it comes close.”