Solar Agriculture

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Agriculture is an important part of any country’s. economy and culture, and it can play an important role in distributed generation of energy.

Farmers have the tradition of being stewards of the land, and their investment in renewable energy supports their role of protecting the land, air, and water. Solar energy, like other renewables, offers an opportunity to stabilize energy costs, decrease pollution and greenhouse gases (GHGs), and delay the need for electric grid infrastructure improvements. Solar energy systems have low maintenance costs, and the fuel is free once the higher initial cost of the system is recovered through subsidies and energy savings (from reduced or avoided energy costs). According to the first USDA On-Farm Energy Production Survey, solar panels have been the most prominent way to produce on-farm renewable energy.

Solar Agriculture hosted some of the first terrestrial photovoltaic (PV) applications of solar energy, as it found uses for solar in remote locations around ranches and farms. Early on, solar electric made economic sense for a number of low power agricultural needs when running utility lines to a specific location was either not possible or too expensive to used for solar Agriculture.


Kerosene, diesel, and propane have traditionally been used in agricultural operations to power generators when grid connection was not available. However use of these fuels has problems:

cost of transporting fuel, volatility of fuel costs, fuel spillage, noisy generators, noxious fumes, and high maintenance needs. The disadvantages of using propane or bottled gas to heat water for pen cleaning or in crop processing applications, or to heat air for crop drying, are the cost of fuel and transportation, along with safety concerns.

For many agricultural needs, solar energy provides a good alternative. Modern, well-designed, simple-to-maintain, and cost-effective solar systems can provide energy that is needed when and where it is needed.

The introduction of solar PV in the late 1950s came through space applications. During the energy crisis in the 1970s, PV technology gained recognition as a source of power for non-space applications and found an application in remote powering, including rural settings. For agriculture, the sales of solar-PV stand-alone systems began in the 1980s. At the time, the most common agricultural applications included running motors, pumping water, charging vehicle batteries, and powering remote security lighting.

The primary agricultural applications for solar-PV electricity have been for battery charging (fence chargers, gate openers, and building lighting), and water pumping from remote wells, streams, or lakes (to provide water for domestic uses, livestock, and small-scale irrigation). Supplementing (or substituting) electricity from the grid has gained momentum over the last decade. Depending on the size of the system and the application required, PV systems for an agricultural operation can cost as little as a few hundred dollars to as much as thousands of dollars.

Today, distributed generation, backup in the case of utility grid outage, and net metering present further opportunities for grid-connected solar energy use in solar agricultural settings. Larger solar installations for solar agriculture have been developed; still, in agriculture solar energy generation has been small when compared to wind energy generation and to date has not surpassed 1Megawatt (MW). Small solar PV installations are below 10 kilowatt (kW), small commercial are 10kW-40kW, and large commercial PV installations range from 40kW-1MW.

There is upward trend and the persevering volatility in diesel and natural gas prices for the last decade. With a nationwide average of 6% of farm expenses relating directly to energy, solar has emerged as an alternative energy (solar agriculture) source that ensures predictability, independence, and even cost effectiveness for a number of agricultural applications. Potential is even higher for crop farming where energy expenses reach 9%. Energy expenses on the farm are also above average for greenhouse nurseries, floriculture, aquaculture, sheep, goat, and beef production.


Solar Resource Potential for Solar Agriculture

In 1931, not long before he died, the inventor Thomas Edison told his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” (Newton, 1989). The schematic developed by Richard Perez of the University of New York at Albany shows the vast potential of this resource. This potential has yet to be fulfilled since the amount of solar energy used for heating and electricity in the U.S. is less than 1% of total energy generated.

Solar energy use for solar agriculture, in the U.S. has increased significantly over the years. With just 43.5 MW in 1992, installed PV capacity reached 1168.5 MW in 2008 (IEA, September 2009). The backbone of solar energy development for solar agriculture has been the approach of distributed generation (DG) – the generation of energy close to the point of use – that typically installations for solar agriculture ranges from 1 kW to 5 MW.

Utility scale power plants accounted for just over 5 % of U.S. cumulative installed PV capacity and 7% of the grid-connected PV capacity in the U.S. However with the 2008 extension of the Investment Tax Credit to utilities, such installations for solar agriculture should grow significantly in the future. In 2009 annual utility installations tripled to 18% of the annual grid connected PV installations and companies continue to announce plans for many large solar projects using solar in agriculture, including solar thermal electric projects, utility-owned projects, and third-party- owned projects.

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