Civil Eats – March 20, 2017
By Scott Thill
By now, most Americans have heard of solar farms. But how about solar farmers?
A quarter of California farms, nearly 2,000 altogether, are generating onsite solar energy, making it far and away the national leader, according to a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) outlining the use of solar on farms. Hawaii, Colorado, and Texas count over 500 farms producing solar power, while Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, Arizona, and Montana have over 200 each.
But how farmers are solarizing that land has become a point of contention. While some have chosen to install solar panels, pumps, coolers, heaters, and more to decarbonize their farm operations and downsize costs, others—sometimes controversially—have stopped planting crops altogether in favor of solar farms. …
Out of America’s top 10 farm states, North Carolina (surprisingly) and California (unsurprisingly) have managed to install America’s largest solar capacity, with 2,866 megawatts and 10,577 megawatts, respectively. They are certainly not alone.
“Iowa and North Carolina have been particularly compelling stories,” explained Karlee Weinmann, a researcher at the Institute For Local Self-Reliance (ILSR). “They have had a focused effort on solar, in terms of feeding their states’ clean energy economies, as well as responding to farmers and others in the agricultural industry who express interest in renewable generation.”
In her work with the ILSR’s Energy Democracy Initiative, Weinmann spent time exploring a customer-owned utility in southeastern Iowa called Farmers Electric Cooperative (FEC). From rooftop panels on farmhouses to ground-mounted arrays displacing riskier crops, Weinmann found that FEC’s adoption of solar impressed even the region’s technology-averse Amish and Mennonite communities.
“The prevailing reasons farmers decide to replace crops with solar are because the farmers are getting older or because it’s easier and more lucrative,” said Weinmann. “They’re principally motivated by risk aversion, and less inclined to want exposure to the volatility that might come with a more traditional crop. Risk is a significant part of the calculus in their decisions, at least in the cases I am aware of.”
While farmers have worked, and sometimes wrestled, with everyone from state officials to entrenched utilities to decarbonize their operations and stabilize their earnings, they have also planted the seeds of tomorrow’s renewable energy agriculture infrastructure, despite the odds.
“One overarching trend hanging over the entire electric industry, in rural and urban areas, is that utilities are pretty resistant to the growth in solar that we have seen and expect to continue seeing,” ILSR’s Weinmann explained. “They find ways of imposing fees that make solar financially infeasible, and such policies definitely expose a tension between customers who want to pursue onsite generation and utilities reluctant to lose the dollars that come with electricity sales. In many cases, utilities are very unwilling to adapt to the marketplace.”
But examples of solar success continue proliferating. Total installed solar capacity is expected to triple over the next five years, and it would be foolish to think that farmers will not want to be a part of it. From greening their portfolios and operations to mitigating climate change, most farmers see themselves as part of the solution.
“Solar makes financial sense for farmers,” Weinmann concluded. “Farming is not an easy business to be in, and it hasn’t really ever been. Solar is a way to buttress that business in a way that also serves the purpose of making our energy economy much cleaner.”