The Grower: Solar offer energy alternatives, but study them closely


The Grower:
Solar, wind offer energy alternatives,
but study them closely

04/01/2011 - by Jerry Jackson

A growing number of farms nationwide are getting into the "alternative energy" business by installing solar panels, wind turbines and other power generating technologies. But production agriculture also is planting the seeds for energy savings in the future.

The sun and wind are helping farmers trim their gas and electric bills, and a variety of state, federal and industry incentives are whittling away at the payback time it takes to recoup energy investments.

California leads the way in on-farm alternative energy, such as solar, with many wineries, nut processing and packing operations installing photovoltaic rooftop panels during the past decade. But now the advances and new techniques are flowing so fast that even the experts have a hard time keeping up.

The Solar Energy Industry Association does not track installations at the level of detail to determine agriculture's share of the market, says SEIA spokeswoman Monique Hanis in Washington, D.C.

But the SEIA forecasts that 2011 will be another record year for photovoltaic installations nationwide, and agriculture will be a significant contributor. Photovoltaic installations have spiked across all market segments, according to GTM Research, a Cambridge, Mass., company that does research and analysis for the SEIA.

The non-residential PV solar sector, which includes agriculture, was growing at a 38 percent quarter-to-quarter rate in late 2010. One factor contributing to solar growth: Congress approved a one-year extension of the 1603 Treasury Grant Program. The SEIA estimates that during 2010, the grants helped more than 1,100 solar projects move forward in 42 states.

The Rural Energy for America Program, overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, specifically helps farms, ranches and small rural businesses offset the costs of solar, wind and other alternative energy projects.

Farms REAP benefits

Success stories from REAP include Whispering Pines Fish Farm, in Holland, N.Y., where Stephen Welk used a $23,125 grant to help install a $93,000 solar electric system in 2006, and Sylvan Nursery, a Westport, Mass., nursery that received a $33,144 grant to offset 25 percent of the cost to install two 120-foot wind turbines in 2007.

The turbines generate up to 70 percent of the energy needs for nursery buildings, and the payback on the investment was estimated at eight years or less.

With falling costs of solar panels, payback times of six to eight years are increasingly common, down from eight to 10 years as recently as a few years ago, says Chuck Helmke, owner of Agriculture Solar, a Tucson, Arizona-based installer.

"With solar panels warrantied for 30 years, that's a lot of free electricity," Helmke says. He's now working on a big 10-megawatt project for a coffee plantation in Mexico, and is fielding more inquiries from dairies and farms outside Arizona.

"Farmers see the value of getting rid of the electric bill," Helmke says.

No payback guarantees

There are no guarantees that the payoffs will pan out, though, and Colorado farmer Alvin Kunugi is a case in point. Kunugi and five other farmers in the San Luis Valley installed solar about four years ago to reduce energy costs of their pivot irrigation systems. Kunugi, who grows potatoes, barley and alfalfa, says the estimated 10-year payback for his nearly $100,000 investment was overly optimistic.

"Right now, there is no payback," he says, because the 3 cents per kilowatt-hour payment from the local utility is too low to cover his costs.

Kunugi and other farmers are battling to try to get the rates increased as they watch large solar-power generating projects move into the high, sunny valley. The solar "farms" produce electricity, but not necessarily crops.

The first phase of just such a major "solar farm" opened in Desoto County, Fla., in 2009 on land once used to grow sod and graze.

Florida is not a significant wind state but does rank among the leaders for solar potential.

Robert Tornello, a greenhouse vegetable grower in Ruskin near Tampa, earned an environmental leadership award from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services last year for turning his 3 Boys Farm into a virtual showcase of conservation and energy efficiency.

Solar panels generate some of the hydroponic farm's electricity needs and act as a backup to run the operation if the power fails.

Other rewards

For many in agriculture, the aspiration to be better stewards of the land is the factor that leads them to make alternative energy investments.

"The rationale for installing solar PV on my farm was driven first by a desire to decrease the size of my carbon footprint," says Simon Rich, who raises organic-grass fed cattle in Edenton, N.C.

Solar helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Rich says, and that's a goal to which more farmers as well as consumers should aspire.

Finances are critical to making energy investments work, though, and Rich says solar can be economical "when configured in such a way that the owner can take advantage of all of the associated tax credits and also sell the renewable energy credits a good price."

North Carolina has a "Green Power" energycredit program, but utilities control distribution of energy as much as possible, Rich says, and that constrains such programs and markets.

Still, the Green Power program, enacted in North Carolina in 2004, and the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard of 2008, have trimmed payback times for solar photovoltaic there to as little as four years in some cases, says Alex Hobbs, associate director for renewable technologies at the North Carolina Solar Center, an outreach of North Carolina State University.

Solar Center engineer Tommy Cleveland says that some of the more innovative uses of solar in North Carolina are in agriculture, from chicken hatcheries to tobacco farms, where barns with solar arrays cure tobacco leaves faster and cut propane costs.

A combination of wind and solar can be cost competitive with fossil fuel for irrigating crops in Great Plains states, according to Brian Vick, an energy researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In a report he co-authored in 2010, Vick noted that with federal incentives, paybacks "in the four- to five-year range" are possible.

"Combining a winter crop (like winter wheat) with a summer crop (like corn or soybeans) resulted in a better match of crop irrigation power electrical demand to renewable energy electrical generation than if only a winter or summer crop was grown," Vick says in the report. And combining solar with wind, he says, increases reliability.

Helmke, the Agriculture Solar installer from Arizona, echoes the sentiments of many in the industry by noting that while alternative energy projects are sprouting in agriculture, the field remains relatively untapped.

Many utilities, he says, still do not offer incentives, and cash-strapped farmers need every break they can get to make a deal work.

"That's the biggest problem we have," he says. "Many farmers don't have the cash and utilities don't pay incentives."

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