Will Agriculture Become Self-Sustaining with Solar?

The use of clean technology in agriculture -- like this solar-powered farm in southern Germany -- is now on the rise in the U.S.
The use of clean technology in agriculture — like this solar-powered farm in southern Germany — is now on the rise in the U.S.

By Brooke Nally

The agriculture industry has been harvesting the power of the sun for hundreds of years. But could new improvements to solar technology change farming and ranching as we know it?

Solar power is leading the way into the 21st century, saving farmers money, boosting small operations and reducing carbon footprints. Here’s a closer look at solar applications in today’s farming practices, as well as the benefits — and potential challenges — that solar sustainability may bring about in the future.

Solar agriculture today

Solar technology has developed at a lightning fast rate. Today, the agriculture industry harnesses the power of the sun to accomplish dozens of farming tasks that used to take substantial amounts of utility-based power.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) notes that solar panels are best used on the farm for energy sources that don’t require a lot of electricity. But the number of U.S. agriculture businesses that rely on solar steadily increased over the last few years. These are just a few ways that farmers and ranchers are integrating solar power with their daily operations:

  • Heating and cooling: The sun’s energy can be used to heat or cool air or water, which can then help regulate livestock building temperatures, dry crops and heat water.
  • Water pumping: Solar-powered pumps can drive water to soak crops, feed livestock and run irrigation systems.
  • Water aeration: Aeration devices provide much-needed oxygen to ponds and stock tanks, and several such setups run exclusively on solar power.
  • Electricity production: Solar electricity can be used in agriculture outbuildings, too. Lighting and refrigeration are two major uses.
  • Security: Farms and ranches take various security measures to protect their assets, and many of these tasks can be controlled by solar power, including security lighting, electric fences and gate openers.
  • Ventilation: Rooftop ventilation systems, powered by solar energy, pull in fresh air and release hot air to keep animal enclosures and greenhouses healthy and efficient.
  • Biosgas digestion: Solar-heated biogas digesters turn methane-rich manure from dairy farms and cattle ranches into usable electricity.

Developments like these are helping to push greater sustainability across the industry. Results from the USDA’s first On-Farm Renewable Energy survey in 2011 showed that there is a major “economic upside to producing energy on the farm.” Farmers in almost every state noted significant savings on their utility bills after implementing renewable energy sources, with solar panels being the most common.

The future of solar in agriculture

Current solar applications could be just the beginning of solar integration with the agriculture industry. Though most farms haven’t yet gone completely solar, new PV tech is making total sustainability possible. As the Economist reported earlier this month, the future of farming is in manufacturing: Farms need to start operating like factories to feed the world’s growing food needs, and solar is one of the most cost-effective, environmentally-friendly ways to do so.

The smart solar push has resulted in some very exciting developments. In Australia, for instance, engineers have developed a solar-powered robot that identifies and zaps weeds in a field. Other in-development robots can travel between rows of plants to apply fertilizer or pick fruits and vegetables.

Solar power isn’t automating just the basic needs at farms and ranches, either. In the long run, solar is a cost-effective investment for the agriculture industry, saving farmers and ranchers the cost of additional physical labor. Given the agriculture industry’s recent labor shortages, smart solar mechanization may be the perfect solution.

Consumer solar applications and industry challenges

Solar adoption throughout the agriculture industry may seem ideal, but these sustainable technology developments have brought about a few hurdles as well. Widespread solar development is making consumer-based gardening cheaper and easier, for example. And while that may sound like a good thing for consumers, it could pose problems for the industry at large.

One developing consumer device is the GrowBot, a garden robot invented to take the cost, land and learning curve out of organic eating. A coffee table-sized garden controlled by solar power manages itself, from fertilizing to watering based on individual plant needs. Prototypes start at $500, but that cost could drop in price as the manufacturing of GrowBot is commercialized for residential use.

As smart solar technology become more accessible for residential use — and consumers eagerly embrace all things eco-conscious — the future of industrial agriculture is uncertain. If individual gardening devices become popular and people start using them to grow their own food instead of relying on farmers, the agriculture industry may need to work a little harder to stay relevant.

Whether consumer-based solar gardening gadgets take off or not, though, there’s no doubt that the agriculture of the future will look significantly different than it does today. The world’s population is growing, meaning there are more people to feed and fewer viable locations to farm. A growing portion of the public is advocating for food to be grown without chemical pesticides, and governments worldwide are pushing for farms to decrease their carbon footprints. Logistically, an agriculture industry sustained by solar and other sources of renewable energy seems to be the best and brightest option out there.

Image credit: Flickr/Ingmar Zahorsky

Based out of Salt Lake City, Utah, Brooke is the content coordinator for SolarPowerAuthority. She is a solar expert with a love for all things eco, including smart green design, hydroponic grow systems, green business initiatives, and sustainable living off the grid. You can contact her via Twitter; @brookenally. 

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