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August 11, 2015 | Solar Energy’s Massive Potential in Agriculture
As a farmer you have an enormous responsibility. Your role fills an essential need vital to sustaining the lives of others. This is no easy feat, as you well know: you’re constantly facing the challenges of fluctuating food prices and demand, changing governmental regulations, rising fossil fuel costs, and the effects of global warming, all of which appear impossible to control, much like the weather you depend on to nurture your crops in the first place.
Solar power is a viable alternative to conventional fuel that addresses many of the unique challenges faced by those in the agricultural sector. While there is no perfect solution for every problem, the use of solar energy can contribute enormous value to farming operations in a few different ways:
Replacing Harmful Conventional Fuels
Conventional fossil fuels are, of course, still in high demand everywhere, including the agricultural sector. The global issues with fossil fuels are well known: Climate change is making weather patterns less predictable and contributing to drought, making it increasingly difficult for farmers to make a living, especially in heavily affected areas in the western United States. Aside from climate change and mounting fuel costs, storage is an issue for farms reliant on fossil fuels to power tractors and generators: rules for USDA organic certification, for instance, include regulations regarding where and how fuel can be stored on-site, and spills can contaminate the soil.
Greenhouses and Crop Drying
As the Union of Concerned Scientists points out, sun-drying crops is “one of the oldest applications of solar energy.” They also note that new solar drying equipment dries crops faster and more evenly than simply leaving them out in the sun, while minimizing damage caused by birds and pests.
The sun is also crucial for growing food in greenhouses and always has been, but most greenhouses rely on some form of fossil fuel to maintain a constant temperature at night or on cold days, for instance. Replacing those with solar energy, whether through a solar generator or a solar greenhouse design, can save on fuel costs and still enable a farmer to grow warm-weather plants year-round.
If the weather isn’t cooperating, farmers must water their crops and livestock, which requires some kind of irrigation system for an operation of any size larger than a backyard garden. Solar pumps can replace gas-powered ones, which also eliminates the risks involved in pouring fuel into a machine so close to the water supply. Additionally, solar water heaters can keep water for livestock from freezing in the winter months.
While it’s not yet the most practical solution, some farms are making the effort to convert their conventional tractors to electric, powered by photovoltaic panels. Besides reducing emissions and fuel costs, these also have the benefit of being lighter and quieter, in addition to increasing visibility due to the lack of a large engine block in front.
The agricultural industry has a big responsibility – feeding the world is no easy feat, and never has been. But farmers are also some of the people leading the movement toward renewable energy and sustainable food systems, and solar energy applications on farms are a logical step toward those goals. Not only does it save money, it creates a sustainable, positive example for future generations of farmers. A worthwhile investment, indeed.