Farmers Adding Much More Renewable Power Than Expected

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According to a new census from the USDA, farmers are reducing their costs by embracing renewable energy to power their operations in very unexpectedly big way. The use of renewable sources focused just on the use of solar panels, wind turbines, and methane digesters.

The tremendous rise in the degree of adoption of renewable energy in itself surprised and pleased the Agriculture Department, which under Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is attempting to spread the use of renewable energy on farms in order to cut greenhouse gases which that could make farming in the US among the worst casualties of climate change by the end of this century, and almost impossible within the next few centuries.

The report is even more encouraging in that it covers adoption only up through the end of 2009. Surprisingly to me, methane digesters came in last among the three sources. By that the end of 2009, 121 US farms were using methane digesters to make energy for farm operations. Another 1,420 farms were using wind turbines to power farm operations and 7,968 were using photovoltaic solar electric or solar thermal energy.

Solar PV provides electricity.  One California fruit grower uses solar to power pumps to irrigate land, or it can be used for any electrical use. Solar thermal collectors use the heat of the sun to provide hot water, which could be used to heat barns – with the hot water piped through a concrete floor supplying radiant heating – or to provide hot water for food or wine processing.  Cogenra Solar combines both types of solar for maximum efficiency at a winery in Northern California.

California led the nation with almost 25% of all farms nationwide using renewable energy. Runners-up were Texas, Hawaii and Colorado with at least 500 operations using their own renewable energy power on the farm.

But the gap in the Midwest breadbasket may be good news too, because it may be due to competing good renewable energy policy in some states designed to encourage renewables. Midwestern farms are hosting wind turbines supplying utility-scale power to the grid. Iowa for example, allows companies to pay farmers to host turbines on farms.

These Midwestern turbine-hosting farms would not be included in this survey since these turbines are owned and operated by those energy companies that simply lease farm land in order to supply the general grid. Thus Iowa farms, while maybe not powering their own operations, were nevertheless by 2009, already supplying a staggering 15% of Iowa electricity just from wind turbines, set in their fields of amber grain.

The money saved by farmers with renewable energy was cheering too. Farmers in nearly every state reported savings on their utility bills. The savings were especially noticeable in New York, where, utility bill savings reported by respondents topped $5,000 for 2009.

Susan kraemer@Twitter

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