(Image: Joel Zook advises farmers on solar)

Part five in a multi-part series on Clean Energy Districts (CED) and policies to make CEDs “universal local” institutions. Read part onepart twopart three, and part four

As an Energy District leader, farmer, and solar owner, there is no question solar is good for farmers, but it is also true that farmers are very good for solar.

Solar is good for farmers because it’s good for business. Farmers are good for solar because as more farmers own and profit from solar, their interest groups become increasingly aligned with pro-solar policy. When agriculture groups such as the Pork Producers and Farm Bureau have skin in the solar policy game, the clean energy team is a whole lot stronger in state capitals and in Washington, DC.

Farmers powering their farm with solar is good farm economics and good for state clean energy policies. Farmers powering the grid for the rest of us may well be – with appropriate enabling and supportive policy – our best path towards electrification and a 100% clean grid.

Despite these benefits, many farmers don’t have solar yet, but it’s possible to accelerate the clean energy transition. Messengers, the bottom line, and allyship all matter, and Clean Energy Districts combine those elements with powerful results in ways no other implementer or policy can.

Clean Energy Districts as Messengers
Clean Energy Districts lead with the work of quality, comprehensive energy planning – technical and financial analysis from local, trusted, independent experts that help a farmer understand their options, make a plan, and get the job done.

Winneshiek Energy District has provided this technical assistance to well over 100 producers, in most cases covering both energy efficiency and solar opportunities. Over half have implemented projects, and many more are actively considering doing so.

Then, there is the multiplier effect: Once a certain number of farms in a given area install solar, the neighbors get interested, and the flywheel of momentum kicks in. Initially, the Energy District is the trusted voice, but soon enough, farmers (and their contractors) become the messenger to their friends and neighbors.

But, the bottom line still needs to pan out, and most farms are a solar sweet spot. As small businesses they qualify for both tax credits and accelerated depreciation, often covering over half the cost of the system. As farms, they generally have plenty of space for significant-sized arrays and relatively easy installs. Taken together, our farm solar assessments often show a simple payback period of just five to six years, on a system with a warranty of 25.

It’s no surprise, then, that farms are a significant part of the roughly 8MW (megawatts) of customer-owned solar in our northeast Iowa county. Their embrace of solar is an investment in their business, their community, and our common home place.

It is also a critical opportunity for new allies in support of solar policies such as net metering and tax credits. In a farm state like Iowa, that support – and our ability to cultivate it and to work together in the policy arena – goes a long way.

In 2019, for example, our state’s two major investor-owned electric utilities supported a bill that would effectively have killed net metering. Not only was this “sunshine tax” defeated by a clean energy advocacy community that included farm organizations, Energy Districts, environmental organizations, and contractors, but the very next year that same coalition succeeded in codifying net metering into state law. The Iowa Pork Producers Association, and the voices of individual farmers and farm leaders, were absolutely critical allies in both efforts.

If the Energy Districts, contractors, and others hadn’t done the work to help hundreds of farmers own solar, and to build relationships with those farmers and their organizations, this policy outcome could have been very different.

We need farmers to build solar not only to power their farms and our common clean energy policy goals but also to power the country. As we electrify the economy and green the grid, we’re going to need lots of land for lots of renewables, but this is not a problem.

Iowa farmers currently grow corn on roughly 13 million acres every year. Over 8 million of those acres feed the ethanol industry. In other words, they are farming sunshine for energy. Just one percent of those ethanol-dedicated acres could generate over 10 gigawatts of electricity, nearly doubling Iowa’s current renewable energy production (which largely comes from wind).

We have the land, and the more farmers with skin in the solar game, the more farm-state policymakers will have skin in the clean energy transition. Energy Districts and our partners and allies are working hard to make this opportunity a reality.