The Sun’s rays have always been the foundation of farming, giving crops the energy they need to grow. But a program by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is now matching up farmers with grants and incentives to help them harvest a new kind of crop – solar-powered electricity.
energyNOW! met Georgia pecan farmer Trey Pippin to learn how USDA’s Rural Development program matched his farm up with a local utility and solar panel manufacturer Suniva to build a solar array on his property large enough to power dozens of homes. The full segment is available below:
Solar energy installation and production on America’s farms has increased significantly in the last decade. According to a recent USDA survey, 8,000 farms have installed a solar energy system on their property, 63 percent of all solar panels in agriculture were installed between 2005-2009, with a five-fold growth rate from 2000-2009.
If the trend of solar power sprouting up across the nation’s farms is emblematic of the connection between Earth and economy, Trey Pippin is the perfect spokesperson. Pecan trees require a lot of water, and when rainfall is scarce, they must be watered by irrigation systems, sometimes 24/7. In 2008, Pippin realized he was spending $180,000 a year in power bills to run his 2,000-acre farm in Albany, Georgia. He went looking for alternatives, and settled on solar power made possible through a combination of federal and state grants and incentives.
Now, “we farm pecans, and we farm photons,” said Pippin. His farm’s 200-kilowatt solar power system went into service in April 2010, and produces 280,000 kilowatt hours a year, enough to power 30 to 40 homes. That may not seem like a lot of energy, but when it started running, his system nearly doubled the amount of solar power in Georgia Power’s portfolio.
And solar system farming is turning out to be a profitable business. “On a summer day, we’re going to produce between 1,000 to 1,200 kilowatt hours, and Georgia Power will pay us 17 cents per kilowatt hour,” said Pippin. “Altogether, it’s about $60,000 worth of power that we’ve sold back to the grid.” The utility funds this effort through an optional surcharge for residential and business customers who want to support renewable energy. Pippin’s solar system cost about $140,000 after tax credits and depreciation, and should be paid off within three years.
The success of solar power on his farm has made Pippin a renewable energy advocate. He recently launched a renewable properties business and has built five-acre solar array in north Georgia that could generate 1.3 million kilowatts of energy – enough to power 140 homes for an entire year.
Solar farming isn’t too different from pecan farming, according to Pippin. “It’s an interesting way to look at it, comparing the pecan tree to the solar panels,” he said. “They’re both using God’s gift of the Sun and the Sun’s energy to keep growing.”
Silvio is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy public relations company based in Washington, D.C.