Farmers find solar panels are a lucrative new crop
Many agriculture professionals are becoming renewable-electricity entrepreneurs
(A native of England, Matthew Diebel is a veteran journalist who has worked at NBC News, Time, USA Today and News Corp., among other organizations. Having spent his childhood next to one of the world's fastest bodies of water, he is particularly interested in tidal energy.)
The words “down on the farm” used to conjure images of tractors, fields of corn, cows and friendly farmers. But more and more these days those farmers have a new crop: solar panels. And it’s proving to be a very profitable one.
Solar panels, of course, need a lot of space. And farmers, increasingly facing unpredictable profits due to extreme weather caused by climate, have lots of it, a combination that has led to an increasingly common synergy.
What’s perhaps most remarkable are the business arrangements. At first, farm owners would lease their land to solar companies, thus bringing in rental income. More and more, though, they have become a one stop shop, buying and installing the panels themselves and reaping the profits. In Germany, for instance, reports Energy Monitor, farmers now produce and sell 16% of the nation’s solar energy. Meanwhile, the Rocky Mountain Institute think tank predicts that rural America could generate $80 billion in revenue by 2035 from renewables — much of that by enterprising farmers — with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimating that at least two more million acres will be developed into solar fields by 2030.
And for those worrying that the land underneath the panels is rendered useless, the development of so-called “agrivoltaics,” where panels move to admit sunlight to crops beneath, is a growing sector, especially in Europe and Asia, where land is less plentiful than in the U.S. And already solar operators are using sheep and other animals to keep the grass under the panels in good shape, thus eliminating the need for expensive (and polluting) mowing. “Solar panels do not have to take out large swathes of farmland,” Byron Kominek, a Colorado agrivoltaics consultant and hay farmer, told Energy Monitor.
Sounds like a win-win situation.