When Farm & Ranch Guide starts tooting the low cost solar energy horn to its targeted readership of — you guessed it, farmers and ranchers — that should be a pretty clear indication that the war over renewable energy in the US is all but over. The bi-weekly publication just spilled a load of ink explaining the benefits of low cost solar energy to agricultural operations in an article with the lede, “It’s time to consider solar power again.”
The decision to make a hard pitch for distributed solar is especially interesting because Farm & Ranch Guide, which describes itself as the “best-read ag publication in the Upper Midwest,” distributes primarily to the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Montana. These are not exactly prime solar spots, so what gives?
Farm & Ranch And The Writing On The Wall
Farm & Ranch Guide makes it clear that the bottom line is what gives. The article, “Solar moves beyond early adopters in upper Midwest,” sticks strictly to the business side.
After briefly acknowledging that low cost solar energy was pretty much of a pipe dream until recent years, FRG gets into the meat of the matter:
Consumers can now purchase solar energy systems for as low as $1 per watt, with added installation costs.
The federal government provides a 30 percent tax credit and some utilities and states provide other incentives for approved solar projects.
As for those who are skeptical about the ability of low cost solar to deliver in the upper Midwest environment, FRG writer and assistant editor Andrea Johnson covers all the bases.
Citing sources at the Minnesota’s public-private Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTS) initiative, Johnson describes how FRG’s readership in the Upper Midwest can follow the model of solar powerhouse Germany, which is a global leader in low cost solar energy even though it is located even farther north than the Dakotas, Montana, and parts of Minnesota.
Plenty of open space and large barns for either ground mounted or rooftop solar are among the advantages.
To help move things along in Minnesota, CERTS has developed the Minnesota Solar Suitability App, which provides potential solar consumers with an instant site assessment down to the square meter.
The True Cost of Low Cost Solar Energy
Did you catch FRG dropping the s-word, as in subsidies? While the Koch brothers and other fossil stakeholders have been blowing a lot of smoke to the effect that “taxpayers are tired of being asked to indefinitely fund corporate welfare for the Obama Administration’s favored industries,” the FRG readership has taxpayer support written into its DNA. Supporting a critical industry, whether it’s agriculture or energy, is what taxpayers do in a developed country.
There’s always the denial factor, but it’s hard to see how FRG readers would let a little subsidy here and there get in the way of a reasonable bottom line decision.
With that in mind, check out FRG’s example of a Minnesota dairy farm that recently installed a 39,840-watt solar array. The initial cost of $4.62 per watt went sailing southwards after this: “a $2.25 per watt rebate, a 30 percent federal tax credit and accelerated bonus depreciation.”
Before we leave the subject of subsidies behind, let’s note that Johnson also included a pitch for REAP, the federal Rural Energy for America Program that funds renewable energy and energy efficiency projects.
Now consider that FRG is just one part of Lee Agri-Media, a subsidiary of the leading US publishing group Lee Enterprises (300 specialty publications covering 22 states), and you have a pretty good counterbalance for the anti-renewable noise machine.
Speaking Of Subsidies
Actually no, we’re not quite done with subsidies yet. There’s another aspect of solar energy and agriculture that doesn’t appear to make much bottom line sense for the chilly upper Midwest, at least not at first glance.
That would be greenhouse farming, which can require substantial energy input in cold climates. Those bottom line obstacles could be partly offset by low cost solar energy and other renewables, and we’re especially interested in the potential for integrating solar energy harvesting technology into the greenhouse itself.
Energy-generating greenhouses are already a thing and the cold-climate greenhouse movement has been growing in the upper Midwest with an assist from the University of Minnesota, which is also the academic partner for CERTS. We’re guessing that the emerging crop of translucent and transparent solar panels could have a hand in the future development of this sector.
If cold-climate, energy generating greenhouses do succeed, all you taxpayers out there can give yourselves a nice pat on the back. The Energy Department has been supporting see-through solar panel R&D with private sector partners, one example being the company New Energy Technologies.
NET has been nailing down low cost, high efficiency technology for replacing windows and glass structural elements with see-through solar panels and it just issued a report on the technical milestones it achieved in 2014, so stay tuned.