With livelihoods that depend on a delicate balance of soil, sun, and water, the notion of “renewable” certainly isn’t new to farmers. In fact, many farmers are finding that farming and renewable energy are a natural fit. One reason is wind and solar power use significantly less water compared to coal- and gas-fueled electricity production, leaving more water available for crops.
Many farmers are also finding that renewable energy production provides a much-needed economic boost. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, wind energy alone could provide $1.2 billion in new income for farmers and rural landowners by 2020. And even when wind turbines are installed, farmers and ranchers can continue tilling and grazing their land.
In regions like California, where agriculture will face drought related costs of $1.84 billion in 2015, some are farming the sun in addition to (or instead of) their usual crops. A recent study of 161 existing or planned utility-scale solar energy facilities in the state found that 28% of them are on cropland or pastures.
On a smaller scale, many farmers are installing solar to cut their electric and heating bills, dry crops, heat livestock buildings, and provide power and light to remote areas.
Assistance and incentives are making renewable energy systems an even more attractive solution. Created in 2002, the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) has helped farmers and rural business owners finance over 10,000 renewable energy and energy efficiency projects since 2009. The USDA estimates these projects will generate or save 8.4 million megawatt hours—enough to power more than 760,000 homes for a year. REAP supports projects in all 50 states.