Don't look now but clean, renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, could someday change the way a farmer plants and harvests his crop on an even wider scale than currently exists. This futuristic technique has been around for many years, but recently it has started to expand in many regions of the country.
The skeptics would say that this is wishful thinking. For instance, how could today's cotton production ever adapt to such a non-traditional approach in farming?
The proponents of clean energy, however, would counter by saying that this concept must be explored as a petroleum-based agricultural economy continues to deal with skyrocketing input costs in diesel, herbicides and insecticides.
Simply put, U.S. agriculture has never shied away from new technology. This is what makes it a global leader, and most observers believe the same trend will continue in the area of clean energy sources.
Improved Energy Source
Wind energy has been around for centuries to grind grain into flour and pump water from wells. But, it has only been in the last few decades that technology has helped wind turbines become a reliable energy source for farms and urban areas.
The ideal scenario, according to research scientists, is for a farm to utilize both wind and solar energy sources. A prime example of how a solar farm can have an impact on farm acreage recently occurred at Agricenter International in Memphis, Tenn.
The facility dedicated a five-acre solar farm consisting of 4,160 solar panels. The project cost $4.3 million and was installed by LightWave Solar of Nashville, Tenn., and underwritten by Silicon Ranch, which is owned by former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen. The solar farm is also connected to the Memphis Light Gas & Water and Tennessee Valley Authority power grid. Silicon Ranch owns the solar farm and will pay the Agricenter $21,000 annually for the next 10 years to lease the land.
This solar farm is distinguished by its special tracking system, which follows the sun across the sky each day. The solar panels can generate 1.6 gigawatts yearly, which is the equivalent of supplying power to 107 homes. The Agricenter will evaluate the solar farm's future potential at the end of the lease period.
Agricenter President John Charles Wilson is optimistic that solar energy can have applications on a farm. He and his staff hope to learn more as they observe the solar farm in action during the next 10 years.
"I would have one clear message for farmers," he says. "Just consider the possibilities with solar energy. Treat it like a new cotton planter that you're about to buy. It has to pay for itself, and it's got to be a useful tool on your farm."
Today's innovative farmers are asking the obvious questions: Is solar energy too expensive? Is it important to be integrated into a utility company's power grid? Can it capture the necessary solar energy on cloudy days?
Those are viable concerns, according to Wilson. He says the integration of this solar farm into the Memphis Light Gas & Water's power grid is certainly an advantage. It helps store energy efficiently and bridges the gap on days when less solar energy is captured.
The more important issue, according to Wilson, is will the solar energy pay for itself over a long period of time.
"Farmers are used to carrying some loans for 10 to 15 years," he says. "So, they are already accustomed to this approach. They just need to know if it will work."
Popularity Of Wind Energy
Wind energy has made a serious impact in states such as Texas and California. Wind turbines there can be seen everywhere as a visitor drives along major highways.
But wind energy has also been successful in areas where there are tax incentives that make such a venture financially attractive.
Brian Vick, USDA-ARS research engineer based in Bushland, Texas, near Amarillo, has been involved in wind energy research since 1991. When he attended his first American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) conference in Washington, D.C., 240 people showed up. The interest in wind energy has since exploded in the last 20 years as evidenced in the 25,000 who attended the AWEA conference in 2010 in Dallas.
"I have seen the interest in wind turbines increase during the last two decades," he says. "There is no doubt in my mind that this is a very good energy source – at least in this part of Texas. All you have is the installation cost. The lifetime maintenance ranges between one cent and three cents per kilowatt hour, and there are no fuel costs."
Installation costs are somewhat high to build a wind turbine, and it might take several years to recoup that investment. The cost of these structures can vary depending on their size, according to Arizona-based Agriculture Solar. Overall costs are also dependent on tower option, cost of local materials and other factors. The actual energy production is dependent on the wind resource at the site.
Varying Costs For Wind Turbines
For example, Agriculture Solar says that a small turbine with a 12-foot diameter (one to three kilowatts) can cost between $15,000 and $25,000. Meanwhile, a turbine with a diameter of 105 feet (200 to 300 kilowatts) can cost as much as $900,000 to $1 million.
"I think that's what initially scares some farmers," says Dana Porter, Texas AgriLife Extension engineer based in Lubbock. "When you talk about it taking eight years to get a return on your investment, that's a pretty big window."
Despite that scenario, wind energy has become more popular in those areas where windy conditions exist.
It all comes down to potential financial incentives. Vick says Texas is the No. 1 state in the country when it comes to wind-generated electricity. When a 2 to 2.5 cent tax credit per kilowatt hour is available for such wind energy and is sold to the local utility, it makes sense for all parties.
"Everybody is trying to improve this technology and make it even better," he says. "We're in a competitive global environment in the research. It has to be cost effective for farmers."
Contact Tommy Horton at (901) 767-4020 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mississippi's Kenneth Hood Sees Potential In Wind Energy
Mississippi cotton producer Kenneth Hood has never shied away from embracing new technologies that can make his farming and ginning operation more efficient. That's why he is open to learning more about solar and wind energy and the practical applications for his business. Although he is intrigued by the opening of the new solar farm at the Memphis Agricenter, he is more interested in wind energy.
"Wind is probably more adaptable to agriculture than some of the other things that are out there," he says. "The reason I say that is because most of our energy costs in agriculture occur after you plant. Those additional expenses also are caused by irrigation and the other things we do during the summer."
Hood says he can look at the data at weather stations on his farm and tell that there is a steady wind speed on the acreage. In fact, he contends that conditions are much windier as compared to 10 or 15 years ago. He is convinced that if historical data were available in the Mississippi Delta, this weather trend could be verified.
The Mississippi Delta producer is cautiously optimistic that wind turbines on his farm could reduce energy costs, but he also likes the idea of selling energy to local utility companies.
"Believe me, energy costs are on the radar screen of every farmer out there," says Hood. "All of a sudden it has become one of the higher costs in production agriculture."Anything that we can do to help reduce these energy costs – like solar panels or wind turbines – is what we need to do to deal with this problem."