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May 13, 2015 | A Whole New Meaning to Solar Farm

Farmers across the country — from New York dairy farmers to the Central Valley of California — are joining the solar revolution.

To many, this movement is surprising. In general, farmers are a conservative group. When they are successful, they are reluctant to change because financial margins for farms are often tight. One wrong decision can be the difference between survival and bankruptcy.

Most farmers would rather die than give up land to something that doesn’t produce. For those farmers, solar is the perfect fit. On average, California farmers are currently saving on energy anywhere from $90,000 to $240,000 per year.

The primary reason for the move to solar was a decision by utilities (particularly in California) to raise the electricity rates for agricultural facilities. Until three years ago, electricity rates for farms were cheap. But agriculture consumes more energy than other commercial concerns, which puts a strain (the utilities say) on the grid. The goal of the rate increase is to get farmers to move the bulk of their operations to off-peak hours.

If farmers could get the livestock and plants to work on the utilities’ schedule, it might work — but they can’t. So with the price of solar installations dropping in the past five years, solar finally makes financial sense and allows farmers to produce their own energy — on their schedules.

California currently limits the amount of energy farms can produce to 1 MW, but farmers can now aggregate several meters together to reach that number, meaning they don’t have to put solar arrays throughout the farm to make use of the power produced. In addition, the utilities say they can handle 1 MW without expensive upgrades to their current infrastructure.

Most farmers are financing their solar installations in one of two ways:

1) They have enough equity in the farm to self-finance the system and purchase it outright; or

2) They sign an operating lease (usually for 10 years) with an option to buy at the end. Typically, the farmers are financing the systems through the Farm Credit network.

Farm installations are most frequently ground-mounted, despite the often-abundant roof-space on barns. Corrosive gases oftentimes rust barn roofs, meaning the roof could disintegrate before the panels do. And since the barns weren’t designed to hold solar panels, they may not even be properly situated to maximize production.

The cost of taking the solar panels down, re-roofing the barn and re-installing the panels would make the whole process less viable. Ground-mounted systems, positioned on the right land, are much easier to install and maintain in the long run.

As farmers grow more comfortable with joining the solar revolution, this critical market will be a boon to the entire solar industry.