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Tina Casey headshot

Solar Power to Boost Agriculture Yields

By Tina Casey

The global power industry leader ABB of Switzerland recently pumped $20 million into California's GreenVolts solar technology company, and the investment could pay big dividends for U.S. farmers. With fuel prices rising, a switch to solar power could ease the bottom line for the domestic agriculture sector, and GreenVolts has just announced a partnership with Independent Solar Developers (ISD), a company that designs solar power systems specifically for farm operations. The venture also gives a boost to President Obama's economic initiatives for U.S. agriculture, several of which focus squarely on alternative energy and energy conservation - and it could help demonstrate the ripple effect of federal support for new energy technologies.

Turnkey solar power equipment for agriculture

GreenVolts is known for its fully integrated "turnkey" photovoltaic system. Until now its primary focus has been on commercial and industrial facilities, a recent contract to install its solar modules for a pesticide manufacturer being one example. The concept of a scalable, all-in-one solar package easily translates to agricultural use, though, with the added advantage that farms are more likely to have open, shade-free land available for building solar arrays. GreenVolts's system is modular and can be downscaled for use in scattered sites, such as a network of irrigation pumps. It can be scaled up to provide for larger centralized uses such as refrigeration systems, and it also includes software for remote monitoring - a big plus for widespread operations, especially on larger farms.

Taking the Hassle out of Solar Installations

Where GreenVolts specializes in the equipment supply part of the solar power equation, Independent Solar Developers (ISD) takes over the nitty gritty of financing, land use, planning, energy audits, and other details that go into a fiscally successful solar installation. The company already has a narrow focus on agricultural customers, so one of its strengths is the store of experience it is accumulating in dealing with agricultural land use issues.

On the road to low-cost solar power for agriculture

In paying close attention to overall costs including siting and installation, GreenVolts and ISD are closely paralleling President Obama's SunShot initiative. SunShot, announced last year, is designed to bring the cost of solar power down to parity with fossil fuels within a few years not only by improving the efficiency of solar cells, but also by streamlining the procedures and equipment needed to get a new installation in the ground.

Federal support for solar technology

As it happens, GreenVolts does have a highly efficient solar cell to its credit, and to get there it had help from the U.S. Department of Energy.  In 2009 DOE awarded GreenVolts a grant of $500,000 to develop advanced photovoltaic technology in partnership with the Nation Renewable Energy Laboratory. The lab provided equipment, modeling and other analytical tools that a start-up company would otherwise find difficult if not impossible to finance, enabling GreenVolts to test and refine its solar technology.

More Alternative Energy Help for U.S. Farmers

Easy access to low-cost solar power is just one federally supported program that is already benefiting U.S. farmers. President Obama has also ramped up the AgStar biogas initiative, which is designed to help dairy farms and other livestock operations convert manure to energy, and the Department of Agriculture has distributed millions in loans and grants to hundreds of farms for energy efficiency and alternative energy projects. Last summer the President also toured the midwest to promote his biofuel initiative, which aims to boost rural economies through investment in growing, transporting and refining biofuel crops.

Energy projects for 21st century farmers

All this activity on the part of private sector solar companies, farmers, and federal agencies makes up a pretty clear picture of an agricultural sector in transition from old energy to new that directly benefits the bottom line of U.S. farms. This invites comparison with that "other" energy project proposed for the midwest, namely, the Keystone XL Pipeline. The pipeline would transport crude oil from Canada down to Gulf Coast refineries, contributing nothing of value to farms along the way while creating potential risks from leaks or breaks and likely causing the price of conventional fuel in parts of the region to rise (the pipeline would relieve a local glut that has kept prices relatively low). In the context of 21st century farming, the Keystone project sticks out like a sore thumb.

Image: Solar panels courtesy of GreenVolts.

Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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