Farmers find renewed interest in renewable energy
There are more than a few ways farmers could benefit from solar energy—from drying crops to heating livestock buildings or offsetting energy costs. Still, this renewable energy source is largely ignored.
Newer data is needed, but as of 2011, USDA reported just 8,000 U.S. farms and ranches tapping into solar power. Here are several examples of how producers have approached solar energy additions to their operations.
Merrill Farms, a fourth-generation Salinas, Calif., vegetable and berry producer, worked with Alta Energy to install solar systems on its most unproductive land. The project will generate 1.6 megawatts (MW) of electricity per year, adding up to $12 million in gross energy savings over the next 25 years.
In total, solar energy will offset around 80% of the farm’s electricity consumption, says Ross Merrill, CEO.
“My family has been stewards of the land since 1933,” he says. “We intend to continue this tradition using best practices and new technologies.”
After sitting down with Alta Energy and conducting a thorough financial analysis, Merrill says deploying solar energy on the farm was a “no-brainer.” The operation used the 30% federal income tax credit and accelerated depreciation, and chose a financial structure that required virtually no money down. Merrill Farms is using the energy savings to pay off the loan.
Salinas, Calif., is also home to lettuce grower Taylor Farms, which just completed a 1-MW installation with REC Solar at a retail facility in Gonzales, Calif., bringing it to a total solar footprint of 200 MW. Using a blend of wind and solar renewable energy sources, Taylor Farms can offset more than 25% of its energy consumption during peak periods.
“We know it’s the right thing to do,” says Nicole Flewell, director of sustainability at Taylor Farms. “Not only are we taking care of the environment, but we’re providing ourselves with reliable and cost-effective energy sources.”
Just a hundred miles or so up the road, California cheesemaker Joseph Gallo Farms is closer than ever to becoming 100% energy independent.
Third-generation dairy farmer Peter Gallo installed 7,840 solar panels on eight acres. The 2-MW fixed-array system meets about half of the operation’s energy needs, he says.
“This project aligns with the work we’ve been doing for 13 years to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and transition to green, renewable energy that is generated right here on the farm,” he says.
Gallo Farms also operates one of the largest and longest-running methane digesters in the state. Between the two sources, Gallo says he’s one step closer to becoming a net-zero energy dairy farm and cheese plant.
Solar energy has a bright future on U.S. farms and ranches. As the cost of technology edges down, and with struggling commodity prices, the lure might be as tempting as it has ever been, as North Carolina tobacco, peanut and cotton grower Dawson Singletary told Bloomberg News earlier this year.
“There is not a single crop that we could have grown on that land that would generate the income that we get from the solar farm,” he says.