How Solar Businesses Can Help with Agriculture & Farming
The agriculture and farming industries provide food for billions of people and significantly contribute to the economies of many countries. The environment benefits positively from both sectors as they use sustainable farming practices and support biodiversity.
As solar energy use continues to become an increasingly popular alternative energy source, its application in agriculture and farming provides many benefits.
Here is what we’re going to cover in this article:
- Advantages of solar energy in agriculture
- Application of solar energy in agriculture and farming
- Challenges of solar energy in agriculture
- Government incentives and policies supporting solar energy use in agriculture and farming
Solar Energy in Agriculture
Solar energy is a renewable, environmentally friendly, cost-effective energy for homes, businesses, and the agriculture and farming industry. Solar energy contributed 3.4% of U.S. electricity generation in 2022 alone.
Solar energy has shown great potential in agriculture and farming. It’s a free resource, and harnessing the power from the sun is cost-effective, sustainable, and reliable, even in harsh weather conditions.
Farmers can use solar energy in agriculture in the following ways:
- Solar-powered irrigation systems
- Crop and grain drying
- Greenhouse heating
- Livestock watering systems
- Cooling systems
Advantages of Solar Energy in Agriculture
Solar energy use in agriculture has several advantages, from cost savings to environmental benefits.
Long-Term Cost Savings
Solar panels can produce energy to run farm equipment, reducing reliance on expensive fossil fuels and grid electricity. While the initial cost of installing solar energy systems is high, their durability and minimal maintenance means saving money on energy bills for decades.
Solar energy can be used in different farming and agriculture activities, improving the efficiency of operations and engagement in value-added processing. For instance, farmers can run solar food dryers, cooling systems, and irrigation pumps using solar energy, enabling those in remote areas to remain off-grid while maintaining optimum production.
Agriculture contributes 19%–29% of the total greenhouse gas emissions, and this rate is expected to rise. Solar energy in agriculture can reduce emissions, mitigating extreme climate change and contributing to a more sustainable future.
Increase in Property Value
Solar panels installed on a farm can increase property value, as having a solar system results in long-term savings in terms of energy costs and reduces carbon emissions, demonstrating a commitment to sustainability. It can be especially beneficial if the farm is being sold or leased in the future.
Efficiency and Cost Savings
Most farming is done in rural areas without electricity, meaning there is less mechanization. Farmers rely heavily on manual labor, which results in lower productivity and income. Solar energy can mechanize farming activities, reducing time wastage and human errors. This leads to efficiency when performing tasks, increasing crop yields, reducing costs, and maximizing profits.
Fossil fuel powers most farming and agriculture machines, and it’s expensive. For machines that rely on electricity from utility companies, power shortages force them to use backup generators that run on fossil fuels. Using solar energy to power farm machines can significantly reduce fuel costs.
How Solar Energy Can Improve the Efficiency of Farming Activities
Solar energy can improve farming activity’s efficiency in the following ways:
- Crop irrigation: Solar-powered irrigation systems can pump water from water sources to crops, saving time, reducing manual labor, and increasing irrigation efficiency.
- Livestock operations: Air quality is crucial to livestock health, making ventilation systems a top priority. Solar-powered ventilation systems help regulate temperature and air quality in livestock buildings without power interruption. As a result, it improves animal welfare.
- Crop and grain drying: Solar dryers harness the sun’s heat to dry crops, fruits, and grains. It’s an insulated box coated with an absorption surface and double-glazed glass. The sun’s heat passes through the glass and is contained within the box, enabling dehydration (drying) to occur. They eliminate the need for main grid electricity and are unaffected by power outages.
Here are three farms that use solar energy to increase efficiency and reduce costs:
Black Star Farms
Located in Suttons Bay, Michigan, Black Star Farms is a vineyard and winery that produces award-winning wines. The farm has a fixed, ground-mounted 53.04 kW solar array to reduce energy costs and carbon footprint. The system was designed to meet 90% of the yearly wine-tasting room energy. When the solar system produces more than they need, the excess is banked for later use or sold to the utility company.
King Orchards Fruit Co. LLC
King Orchards Fruit Co. LLC is a family-owned fruit producer and processor in northern Michigan. To reduce its energy costs and improve its sustainability, the farm installed a fixed 52 kW ground-mounted solar system in 2015. The power generated by the system is used for the King Orchards’s bakery and retail store.
The excess electricity produced during the day is credited and fed back into the main grid. This energy is used on days when the system doesn’t produce enough electricity to meet the farm’s electrical needs.
Bannister Downs Dairy
Bannister Downs Dairy is a family-owned dairy farm in Western Australia that produces high-quality milk and cream. The farm installed a 100 kW solar system to power its creamery operations. It also has smaller solar systems in different locations and plans to invest more in solar energy use on its farm. The solar system has reduced energy costs and improved its sustainability while also producing milk and cream in a more environmental-friendly way.
According to these farms, solar energy use has led to positive customer feedback on their choice to harness solar power.
Solar Energy for Irrigation
Irrigation is an essential process for plants to thrive. It requires a lot of energy to pump water from the source to the fields. This energy often comes from electricity or fossil fuels, like diesel or gasoline. Fossil fuels and electricity can also be unreliable since the fuel can run out or farmers may experience a power outage during irrigation.
Solar power is an alternative energy source for powering irrigation systems, reducing dependence on the grid and fossil fuels and lowering costs.
- Drip irrigation: Solar drip irrigation systems use solar energy to deliver water directly to the plant’s roots. Solar-powered drip irrigation is a sustainable and cost-effective way of watering crops compared to systems powered by the main grid or generators.
- Sprinkler irrigation: Sprinkler irrigation systems distribute water over a large area. They work like natural rainfall. Solar-powered sprinkler systems use solar panels to power a water pump that circulates water to the sprinklers.
- Center pivot irrigation: Center pivots irrigate crops in circular patterns using sprinklers. The system uses solar-powered pumps to draw water from the source and pump it to the pivot system for distribution.
Solar Energy for Greenhouse Farming
Greenhouse farming refers to growing plants in an enclosed environment, protecting them from harsh weather. Solar energy use in greenhouse farming provides a sustainable and cost-effective solution for watering, heating, cooling, and lighting.
- Heating and drying: Greenhouse plants require heating to maintain optimal temperatures for their growth, especially during winter. There are three ways to heat a greenhouse using solar energy: solar panels, solar furnaces, and hot water panels.
- Cooling: Excessive heat, especially during summer, causes the greenhouse to overheat. This can lead to reduced crop yield or crop failure. Solar-powered ventilation systems can extract hot air from the greenhouse and replace it with cooler outside air.
- Lighting: Light is essential for photosynthesis and plant growth. Solar panels can generate electricity to power greenhouse lighting, reducing grid dependency and lowering energy costs.
- Watering: Solar-powered pumps can draw water from the source and distribute it throughout the greenhouse using drip irrigation or other irrigation methods.
Using solar energy in greenhouses is a sustainable solution that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. It eliminates the need for grid power and fossil fuels and promotes plant health.
Solar power can also provide consistent electricity to the greenhouse, helping regulate the structure’s temperature and humidity levels. As a result, farmers can expect higher quality crops that are more resistant to pests and disease, leading to higher crop yields.
Solar Energy for Livestock Farming
Solar power can provide energy to light barns and other livestock structures and power ventilation systems to keep the animals comfortable and healthy.
Solar energy can power equipment such as forage grinders, mixers, milk coolers, and automated feeders, improving efficiency. Livestock farmers can use solar panels to provide shade to animals, preventing heat stress. For those with dairy farms, solar energy can reduce water heating costs by up to 85% each year. The panels also come in handy in powering milking equipment.
Government Incentives and Policies
The government recognizes the importance of using renewable energy sources, including solar energy. It has introduced various policies and incentives to encourage its adoption in agriculture and farming. Utility companies also promote the use of renewable energy.
Since the initial cost of installing solar systems is high, these incentives reduce overall cost, making it more affordable. Solar incentives and policies depend on the state, and the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency contains all the information one needs.
Here are some examples of incentives and policies available for farmers:
- Grants: Government agencies such as the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the US Department of the Interior (DOI), and the US Department of Energy (DOE) offer grants and loan programs. These grants can cover the cost of purchasing and installing solar panels, making them more accessible to farmers.
- Tax incentives: Government may offer tax incentives, such as tax credits or exemptions, to farmers who invest in solar energy systems. The most common solar tax credit is the 30% Federal Solar Tax Credit, which reduces solar energy installation costs.
- Feed-in tariffs (FITs): FITs are policies that guarantee a fixed and high price for energy generated from renewable sources. Farmers who generate excess electricity feed it to the grid at a predetermined rate.
- Net energy metering (NEM): NEM, commonly known as net metering, is an electricity billing system that allows farmers to sell excess electricity generated by their solar panels back to the grid. NEM is available for customers who connect their renewable energy systems to the grid. In short, the grid can act as storage for those who don’t have storage systems. Net metering is only available in some states.
Future Trends in Solar-Powered Agriculture
Solar energy technology is rapidly evolving as new technologies emerge that can increase its efficiency in agriculture and farming. They can lead to increased productivity, sustainability, and profitability. Here are some emerging trends in solar-powered agriculture and farming:
- Battery storage systems: The energy stored in the solar battery can be used at night or during low solar energy production periods. Battery storage systems ensure farmers have a constant energy supply to power their operations, reducing their reliance on grid electricity.
- Solar-powered agro drones: Solar-powered agro drones are being developed to monitor crop growth, helping farmers improve yield and reduce waste and costs. These drones can use sensors to detect moisture levels, crop health, and other factors that affect crop growth.
- Mobile solar energy systems: Mobile solar energy systems provide a flexible solution to run farm operations, especially in remote or off-grid locations. Farmers can move the system from one location to the other depending on the farm operation where energy is needed most.
- Agrivoltaics: Agrivoltaics, also known as agrovoltaics, agrophotovoltaics, or agrisolar, combines agriculture and solar energy production in the same space. Solar panels are installed over cropland to produce electricity, allowing crops or pastures to grow underneath.
Promoting Sustainability in Solar-Powered Agriculture
Solar energy has a great potential to increase sustainability in agriculture and farming industries. Its use in farming and agriculture increases food security and provides employment to maintenance teams.
When farmers use solar energy to power farm equipment and provide power for farm operations that require electricity, such as heating, they can achieve reduced energy costs. As a result, crop yields can increase to meet society’s food needs, especially for farms in remote areas without access to grid power.
Using solar energy helps conserve the environment, mitigating climate change which is crucial for agriculture sustainability. It can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy efficiency, and improve water management.
Since solar energy is a clean energy solution, it can be successfully implemented in sustainable agriculture practices such as organic and regenerative agriculture.
Challenges and Solutions in Solar Farming Investments
While solar energy in agriculture and farming has many benefits, it also has some challenges that need addressing:
1. High Upfront Costs
The initial cost of installing solar energy systems is high. It can be challenging for farmers with limited financial resources. The battery storage system is also expensive, especially for farmers, since they require larger systems to meet their energy needs.
To mitigate this, government and utility companies have incentives to lower upfront installation costs, such as tax credits, grants, and loans. Incentives can be increased to reduce costs further to allow farmers to implement solar energy in their farms.
Partnerships with solar businesses can also help solve financing and technical expertise challenges. Companies selling solar systems can offer financing programs to help farmers install solar energy systems such as loans and leases.
2. Sun Intermittency
Solar systems depend on weather conditions, which can sometimes be unpredictable. As a result, there may be times when the solar system’s energy output decreases, especially during colder months.
Investing in adequate battery storage will enable farmers to store surplus power and use it when their system cannot generate enough power for their needs. Net metering may also help farmers sell surplus electricity to the grid and get billing credit from their utility provider.
3. Limited Space
Solar energy systems require more space for installation than electricity from the grid. Most small-scale farmers may not have enough space to install this system, causing them to use grid power and fossil fuels.
As a solution, these farmers can utilize floating solar panels. They can be installed over water bodies like ponds, reservoirs, or agrivoltaics, where they can plant certain crops and keep animals under the panels.
4. Lack of Technical Expertise
Solar system installation requires technical expertise, raising repair and maintenance costs for farmers who have no idea of how the systems work. Farmers need these experts to understand basic technical details so they can maintain and troubleshoot the systems themselves without having to pay.
Farmers may also need to attend training programs to understand the basics of using solar systems.
The use of solar energy in agriculture and farming has significant potential to revolutionize the way food is produced, making these sectors more sustainable, resilient, and environmentally friendly.
Solar technology can transform agriculture and farming, from irrigation, greenhouse farming, and livestock operations to crop drying. It increases energy security and reduces dependency on the electricity grid during these operations. This renewable energy source is readily available, so many farmers, especially those in sun-rich areas, can harness it.
By incorporating solar energy into agricultural practices, farmers can improve their operations and contribute to a more sustainable and resilient food system for future generations.
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