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Farms Are Turning to Solar as Electricity Prices Soar

Solar energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels for many large farms.

Step onto a farm in California, and you're likely to find solar panels planted near almonds or oranges.

Solar energy is a growing presence in the agriculture industry, partly as a way to offset increasing energy demands from water shortages and mechanization. This makes farming and ranching a prime partner for the solar industry, solar companies told Motherboard at the World Agriculture Expo last week.

And while start-up costs of solar energy are still more expensive than fossil fuels, a combination of state incentives and increased demand means it's starting to pay off.

"The people who wanted to go solar just for the sake of going solar have done so," said Alexander Crown, a regional sales manager REC Solar, a company based in San Luis Obispo. "Now, it makes business sense."

Solar power has become a popular choice for farmers to supplement their energy use for water pumping, charging electrical fences, keeping barns warm and powering automatic milking lines, said Mary Wrege, renewable energy and community resilience educator at Cornell University.

"Since the price of milk is so low, for the larger farms if they can save money…they will try and do it," said Wrege, who works with the dairy industry through the university's central New York extension office.

Aerial photo of the Kapcsandy winery. Image: SunPower

Some agricultural pockets of the country are moving more quickly to solar than others. In California, a five-year-long drought has forced farmers to pump groundwater from increasingly deeper wells, which use a lot of electricity during the summer months. But solar has also been catching on in states where coal production was once a major economic driver, too, said said Eb Russell, president of RP Construction Services, which installs solar power projects.

"It's really encouraging to see places like Nebraska embracing solar," he said.

Electric companies like Pacific Gas & Electric, often charge more during daytime, summer hours due to the demand on the power grid. So using the sun to power a pump or an irrigation system during the hottest part of the day when opting for that plan makes financial sense.

But the biggest financial incentive for farms is the ability to avoid fees from electricity spikes. Electricity-intensive operations, like pumping water or turning on an automated milking system, disrupts the local power grid by drawing a ton of energy all at once. The farmer then gets slapped with a fee for "spiking" the grid, which can be substantial, said Gabe Schwartz, spokesman for Stem, an energy storage company that works with solar companies.

"A single, 15-minute period," he said, "can set half of the bill for a month."

To avoid this, some farms install lithium ion batteries that store excess solar power from their panels. The batteries automatically turn on when a large energy surge happens, and they pump electricity back into the grid to compensate for the spike. Thus, no budget-crushing power bill.

At the same time, some farms can't afford much storage, so their solar power ends at sundown, Wrege said. If battery storage was cheaper, it would be much easier to expand solar to farms nationwide. After all, she said, it's harder to sell a farmer in New York on the idea of solar panels if they won't work during a summer storm.

"The biggest limitation are generally battery costs and cost of storage," she said. "They need a backup plan. They can't depend on solar all the time."

A Rivermaid Trading Company orchard in Lodi, California. Rivermaid produces cherries and pears. Image: Woody Welch

Solar doesn't make sense for everyone in agriculture at the moment. In some areas of the country, like Washington state, the price of electricity is so low that installing solar panels wouldn't help farms' bottom lines, Crown said. And while they could sell back some electricity into their local grid, the regulations and pricing around those are expected to fluctuate over the next few years as solar expands.

But nationally, Crown said, the agriculture industry is moving toward adopting solar as a key energy supplement.  Much of that growth has to do with the Renewable Portfolio Standard, rules some states have put into place over decades to increase their production of renewable energy, Russell said.

As of December, 29 states and the District of Columbia had mandatory renewable goals local power companies were expected to work toward, and eight states had voluntary renewable goals.

Every state and the District of Columbia offers incentives for solar energy, according to the DSIRE, a database of renewable energy resources through North Carolina State University. The incentives come from agencies ranging from the US Department of Agriculture to rural town governments and include tax credits, rebates, grants and loans.

The mandates and ensuing incentives are responsible for "a lot of the fuel" behind the growth of solar in general, not just within agriculture, Russell said. So much so that he hinted renewables are starting to compete with one another, rather than just competing with natural gas and coal. "Utilities might favor wind if they're up in Wyoming or Montana."

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At the end of the day, farmers who are exploring solar power and add-on products are doing so because using renewable power could help a farm go green—and keep green in their wallets.

"A farmer can't install a coal plant on their property. They can install solar," Russell said. "Solar is the most deployable, easy-to-deploy energy source on Earth."