Farmers jump into renewable energy trade

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, April 18, 2019

America’s farmers are increasingly getting into the renewable energy business, especially solar and geothermal energy, according to the Agriculture Department’s latest nationwide survey.

The number of farms producing renewable energy — 133,176 — more than doubled from 2012 to 2017, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture released last week. The survey is conducted every five years.

The results suggest a growing appeal and economic benefit from solar and geothermal systems for farmers.

“It’s really good news for solar,” said Andy Olsen, senior policy advocate for the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which advocates for renewable energy in agriculture. “These are really good numbers to see.”

The census shows that 90,142 farms had solar energy production in 2017, up from 36,331 in 2012. A total of 30,343 farms had geothermal systems in 2017, a sharp increase from 9,403 five years earlier.

In contrast, biofuel-based systems saw a decline and remain a niche subject to the rise and fall of commodity and fuel prices.

The number of farms making biodiesel decreased to 2,304 from 4,099. Farms making ethanol fell from 2,364 to 1,759, the USDA said.

The drop in on-farm biodiesel systems could be a side effect of good news for that industry, according to the National Biodiesel Board, a trade group. Biodiesel has grown enough as an industry that big-scale producers are buying the raw materials for energy production, rather than having it go to on-farm energy production, an economist for the NBB, Alan Weber, said through the group’s spokesman.

On the farm, biodiesel is made from crops such as canola, sunflowers and soybeans. In deciding whether to use oilseeds for on-farm energy, farmers weigh the cost of fuel they’d otherwise buy, as well as prices they can receive for selling the harvest.

High diesel prices in the Upper Midwest in 2006, for instance, spurred study of on-farm biofuel production for use in farm equipment engines and as heating fuel. A 2010 report by researchers at the University of Minnesota suggested neither soybean-based nor canola-based biodiesel was cost-competitive with petroleum-based diesel for on-farm use.

Olsen said solar production’s growing popularity with farmers mirrors that of the general population. And although most farms putting in such systems are small — around 50 acres — there’s growing appeal on bigger farms such as concentrated animal feeding operations, with their high energy demands.

Geothermal systems rely on groundwater circulated through a closed loop to pump warm air into buildings in winter and to cool them in summer. Farmers can cut their energy use in half with such systems, said John Freitag, executive director of the Geothermal Alliance of Illinois. It’s a good energy source for farm equipment storage shops, for instance, he said.

On-farm renewable energy production has federal policy implications too, Olsen said. Tax incentives for installing systems can spur farmers in that direction, and one initiative — the Rural Energy for America Program — specifically helps farmers install renewable systems for on-farm use. That program has been a target for budget cuts by the Trump administration, but advocates in Congress such as Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) have helped save it in appropriation bills.