Distributed Energy a No Brainer for Farmers

September 12, 2017


Solar Tribune:

Amid all of this uncertainty, a growing number of farmers are embracing the opportunity to harvest a different kind of crop – the sun. Solar energy offers farmers a level of stability, profitability, and versatility that is especially attractive.

The rapid innovation that has occurred in the solar sector over the past several years has led farmers to embrace numerous cost-effective applications of solar energy on their lands. Photovoltaic systems are being used by crop and livestock farmers to provide electric power for water pumping, small-scale irrigation systems, electric fencing, building lighting, livestock building ventilation, and much more.

Solar thermal systems are a similarly cost-effective method for farmers looking to use renewable energy sources to streamline their operations. Solar hot water heating systems are used by livestock farmers for pen cleaning purposes, and in particular, by dairy farmers who have substantial water heating and milk cooling demands.

The growing solar trend on America’s farmlands is a financial no-brainer for farmers otherwise accustomed to unpredictable revenue streams.

Of particular note, a 2017 report by the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Associationfound that solar installations in North Carolina generate 30% of the income of an average farm while occupying about 20% of the land. Additionally, typical annual rent payments for farmland by solar companies range from $500 to $1,400 per acre in North Carolina, while the average 2015 rent for crop and pasture land ranged from just $27 to $102 per acre.

Connecticut Post:

SIOUX CITY, Iowa (AP) — Dolf Ivener wants to help the planet and revolutionize the way farmers power their farms.

The Sioux City businessman and fifth-generation farmer, who oversees operations outside of Hinton and Whiting, Iowa, recently launched Hog Power Energy.

The new company aims to help pork producers reduce electricity costs in confinements through the use of renewable energy created via a self-contained solar generator system developed and tested by Ivener.

Essentially, it gives producers a chance to implement a microgrid system to a confinement that would lessen but not completely eliminate their dependence on utilities and offset their electricity costs by $300-$500 a month, according to Ivener’s estimates.

The all-in-one solar powered system comes packed inside a 20-foot shipping container. Contents of the container include an 11-kilowatt solar panel system that features 40 panels, a battery management system, a 20-kilowatt battery to store excess energy and provide 30 hours of backup power, and a 15-kilowatt inverter that directs the collected energy.

Although the system is suited for any type of ag building, Ivener is specifically targeting hog confinements for now due to how the needs of those structures align with solar’s capabilities.

“You see what’s running on this hog confinement? Fans,” Ivener told the Sioux City Journal . “At night when it’s really cool, the fans don’t run and you don’t need as much electricity. Winter time, none of the fans run — like one fan — so it works perfectly with solar production because it’s when their energy consumption is at its most.”

While the figure varies by type of building, materials inside of it, its size and its purpose — for example, a finishing barn versus a gestation barn — a typical 1,000-head swine facility uses about 2,000 kilowatt hours a month, according to Jay Harmon, an Iowa State University professor and livestock production specialist for the college’s extension program.

Harmon came about that number after he and other researchers associated with the college surveyed a number of producers to try and determine the average electrical use for operating a hog confinement.

“That’s ball park anyway,” Harmon said.

Determining an average rate is a bit more challenging. Rates vary depending on if a confinement receives service through a private utility, a municipal-owned utility or rural cooperative and the category it is billed under.

However, another study by the University of Minnesota’s extension office estimated that energy costs, including gas usage, represent anywhere from 2 to 5 percent of the out-of-pocket costs of raising a pig.

Even though that figure isn’t a substantial expense, it is one that can be trimmed, which is where Ivener sees his opportunity.

Advances in battery technology are what have allowed Ivener, a 43-year-old champion of renewables, to create the Hog Power system.

“There’s a saying, ‘You strike when the iron is hot.'” Ivener said. “And the iron is hot because the technology is getting cheap enough and the utilities don’t understand that they might actually have to charge you less money for electricity; they’ve never done that in the history of electricity.”

One big energy cost of the food system is transport, and a solution is to site grow operation near, or in, population centers.


Before stepping into Plenty Inc.’s indoor farm on the banks of the San Francisco Bay, make sure you’re wearing pants and closed-toe shoes. Heels aren’t allowed. If you have long hair, you should probably tie it back.

Your first stop is the cleaning room. Open the door and air will whoosh behind you, removing stray dust and contaminants as the door slams shut. Slide into a white bodysuit, pull on disposable shoe covers, and don a pair of glasses with colored lenses. Wash your hands in the sink before slipping on food-safety gloves. Step into a shallow pool of clear, sterilized liquid, then open the door to what the company calls its indoor growing room, where another air bath eliminates any stray particles that collected in the cleaning room.

The growing room looks like a strange forest, with pink and purple LEDs illuminating 20-foot-tall towers of leafy vegetables that stretch as far as you can see. It smells like a forest, too, but there’s no damp earth or moss. The plants are growing sideways out of the columns, which bloom with Celtic crunch lettuce, red oak kale, sweet summer basil, and 15 other heirloom munchables. The 50,000-square-foot room, a little more than an acre, can produce some 2 million pounds of lettuce a year.

Step closer to the veggie columns, and you’ll spot one of the roughly 7,500 infrared cameras or 35,000 sensors hidden among the leaves. The sensors monitor the room’s temperature, humidity, and level of carbon dioxide, while the cameras record the plants’ growing phases. The data stream to Plenty’s botanists and artificial intelligence experts, who regularly tweak the environment to increase the farm’s productivity and enhance the food’s taste. Step even closer to the produce, and you may see a ladybug or two. They’re there to eat any pests that somehow make it past the cleaning room. “They work for free so we don’t have to eat pesticides,” says Matt Barnard, Plenty’s chief executive officer.

Barnard, 44, grew up on a 160-acre apple and cherry orchard in bucolic Door County, Wis., a place that attracts a steady stream of fruit-picking tourists. Now he and his four-year-old startup aim to radically change how we grow and eat produce. The world’s supply of fruits and vegetables falls 22 percent short of global nutritional needs, according to public-health researchers at Emory University, and that shortfall is expected to worsen. While the field is littered with the remains of companies that tried to narrow the gap over the past few years, Plenty seems the most promising of any so far, for two reasons. First is its technology, which vastly increases its farming efficiency—and, early tasters say, the quality of its food—relative to traditional farms and its venture-backed rivals. Second, but not least, is the $200 million it collected in July from Japanese telecom giant SoftBank Group, the largest agriculture technology investment in history.

With the backing of SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son, Plenty has the capital and connections to accelerate its endgame: building massive indoor farms on the outskirts of every major city on Earth, some 500 in all. In that world, food could go from farm to table in hours rather than days or weeks. Barnard says he’s been meeting with officials from some 15 governments on four continents, as well as executives from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., while he plans his expansion. (Bezos Expeditions, the Amazon CEO’s personal venture fund, has also invested.) He intends to open farms abroad next year; this first one, in the Bay Area, is on track to begin making deliveries to San Francisco grocers by the end of 2017. “We’re giving people food that tastes better and is better for them,” Barnard says. He says that a lot.


A married couple in Minnesota found a genius use for the swaths of land occupied by solar systems—coupling them as pollinator-friendly habitats.

Travis and Chiara Bolton of St. Paul-based Bolton Bees partner with solar companies to host commercial bee operations. So far, the Boltons have established hives at Connexus Energy, the largest customer-owned power company in Minnesota, and at solar facilities in Farmington and Scandia owned by NRG Energy.

About 3,600 pounds of the first “Solar Honey” harvest has already been extracted from the three sites, Modern Farmer reported, with more honey to come in October. Bolton Bees is also looking into opening apiaries at solar sites in Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois.

The couple even trademarked the name “Solar Honey” and license it to other beekeepers, food producers and energy companies that agree to follow certain production standards.

“We hope that this model can be replicated throughout the nation,” Travis Bolton told Modern Farmer.

The worldwide boom in solar energy has occurred simultaneously with the alarming rate of honeybee deaths. U.S. beekeepers lost 44 percent of their honey bee colonies from April 2015 to April 2016.

But this initiative from Bolton Bees is a win-win for both the environment and our precious pollinators alike.

“We have been humbled with all of the interest in the work that we have been doing,” the company wrote on Facebook over the weekend. “We strongly believe in this collaboration. It is utilizing the land underneath solar panels—instead of just having gravel or cheap turf grass. Solar Energy is cheap, and being installed rapidly throughout the nation. The land should be used to plant healthy habitat for pollinators.”

4 Responses to “Distributed Energy a No Brainer for Farmers”

  1. Gingerbaker Says:

    So, $500 to $1500 per year per acre, plus the cost of the hardware, and construction, and maintenance, and connection, and integration and we are supposed to believe that this is the way to produce renewable energy at the lowest price for the consumer?

    See, all my complaining about solar is about whether we are setting up a system so that everyone’s electric bills will be as small as possible, or whether those bills will be ‘something else’.

    For instance, if somehow the masses got their way and a carbon tax was actually voted in, it would raise the cost of fossil fuels by a somewhat significant factor, let’s say 20%. Which means renewable solar, to be cost effective, need only be 1% less than the new price.

    Which means solar is now 19% more expensive than it would have been to be cost competitive. And this is supposed to be progress?

    Is this why a power utility can afford to pay farmers $1500.00 per acre and yet still make a profit? It seems to me that paying the same amount (or more) for electricity, when you now are using a source that has no fuel costs, is nuts. Not ideal. Nor pro-consumer.

    See, in this system, the guy who owns the solar panels is the guy making money. So, why don’t we cut that middleman out of the equation. Why don’t we all own our RE electric system? So we can ensure that we are ALL paying the least amount for our energy?

    And, I gotta ask – what if we did this everywhere in the country? Not settle for just our own rooftop or our own street, or our own municipal utility? Because the larger the geographical area, the more likely it is that sharing electricity on a shared smart grid is the most cost effective way for all of us. I think.

    Instead of paying $1500.00 per acre for a solar farm in N. Carolina, what is we had a 50,000 acre solar farm in Nevada? On Federal land for free. With about 50% more insolation than N.Carolina?

    How much would upgrading the U.S. to a smart grid cost? How much shared cost to build us the HVDC lines we would need to connect Nevada solar farms to, say, NYC? How come we don’t know the answers to these questions? Maybe it is too expensive to do this. But I really doubt it.

    India is putting in huge HVDC arteries throughout the country. So is China. We do not seem to be having that conversation.

    Our RE energy conversation is so limited, we think $1500.00 per year per acre rental fees is progress. We seem bound and determined to pay through our noses for power forever.

  2. webej Says:

    In China and India they are planning for the future, something known as policy. In America everyone has been brain-washed into thinking that it all has to happen by itself, through the magic of the market; any type of planning on a collective scale is bad socialism (unless it is protected quasi-monopolistic mega-corporate). It’s hard to even explain how canals and schools and interstate highways came about if we extrapolate today’s attitudes backwards in time.

  3. andrewfez Says:

    In 10 years, the world may not be able to feed itself:


    “By 2027 the world could be facing a 214 trillion calorie deficit, says Sara Menker, founder and chief executive of Gro Intelligence, an agricultural data technology company. In other words, in just a decade, we won’t have enough food to feed the planet.

    We’ve long known that we might reach a point where we have more people than the food to sustain them. By 2050, the world’s population is expected to reach 9.1 billion, and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts that at that point, the world would need to produce 70% more food than today to feed all those people. That 2050 deadline is the one usually cited by scientists and organizations like FAO and Oxfam as the year the world will run out of food.”

    Also look at the CA yields over the last decade for vegetable crops:


    Lots of veggies have peaked in production in the last 10 years and are now below their highest marks. At best some have managed to stay flat in production. And this is at a time population continues to rise.

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      I think most of the population growth will be in the poorest parts of the world, who already can not feed themselves very well.

      The temperate civilized world will probably do just fine. Here in the U.S., for example, we could probably grow 3 times as much food as we do, if people converted lawns into gardens.

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