April 21, 2011 | General

Renewable Energy Production On American Farms

BioCycle April 2011, Vol. 52, No. 4, p. 40
Across the nation, 8,569 farmers and ranchers reported producing renewable energy with solar panels, wind turbines or methane digesters.
Aleksey Minchenkov

AMERICAN farmers and ranchers increasingly contribute to the nation’s endeavors towards energy independence, according to the results of the 2009 On-Farm Renewable Energy Production Survey, released in February by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Across the nation, 8,569 operations reported producing renewable energy with solar panels, wind turbines or methane digesters.

The most prevalent method of renewable energy production on farms and ranches is the solar panel. Ranging from 1,906 in California to four in Delaware, there are farms in all 50 states with solar panels. In fact, 7,968 farms, or nearly 93 percent of all farms that produce renewable energy, employ solar panels. Of these, 6,133 farms have only photovoltaic, 732 have only thermal and 1,103 farms reported using both types of systems.
According to the farmers, in the five-year period from 2005 to 2009, more than 100,000 panels were installed on their operations – more than double the number from the previous five-year cycle. The survey also found that a solar panel system on average cost $31,947 to install.
At the state level, California is the front-runner when it comes to on-farm solar panels in the U.S. The Golden State accounts for nearly a quarter of all farms in the nation that use solar panels to produce renewable energy. Texas, Hawaii and Colorado are the other major states when it comes to this production method. All three of these states have at least 500 farms utilizing solar panels.

Wind turbines are another popular way to generate renewable energy on the farm. In 2009, operators on 1,420 farms and ranches used 1,845 turbines to generate electricity. An overwhelming majority of these, 1,406, were small turbines with an average capacity of 6 kilowatts. The other 14 are large turbines, with an average generating capacity of 1,035 kilowatts.
Just as with solar panels, California is in the lead, with 134 farms in the state reporting installation of small wind turbines. Texas is a close second, however, with 102 operations using this renewable energy production method. These two states are closely followed by Minnesota and Colorado, where 99 and 98 farms respectively are participating in this practice.
In the five-year period from 2005 to 2009, farmers in the U.S. installed 899 new small wind turbines on their operations. Minnesota farms led the pack during that period, with 83 new turbines installed. Texas and Colorado were the only other states in the U.S. where 80 or more turbines were installed during this time period.
When it comes to large wind turbines, all of the farms using this method are located in America’s heartland region, with Iowa farmers leading the nation. Nine out of America’s 14 large wind turbines are located in the Hawkeye State. The other states where farmers use large wind turbines are Kansas, Minnesota and Montana.

As of the end of 2009, 121 farms in the U.S. had methane digesters. (See sidebar on page 37 for latest national digester data.) Unlike solar panels and small wind turbines, an average methane digester has a much higher price tag: Farmers reported an average installation price of more than $1.7 million. Overall, methane digesters produced 30.5 million cubic feet of methane gas in 2009.
Producers on farms in 29 states reported using methane digesters. Four states – Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania and California – account for more than half of all methane digesters in the U.S. Wisconsin also leads in the number of new installations. Eighteen of Wisconsin’s 25 methane digesters were installed in the five-year period from 2004 to 2009.
In addition to contributing to America’s energy independence, farmers and ranchers across the country also reported financial benefits to producing renewable energy. Of the farmers who reported utility bill savings, utility expenses were cut by an average of $2,406 in 2009.
The 2009 On-Farm Renewable Energy Production Survey was just a first step taken by NASS to measure agriculture’s impact on U.S. renewable energy production. NASS is working on expanding its data collection, gathering additional data on the contribution of agriculture in the renewable energy sector. Full results of the 2009 On-Farm Renewable Energy Production Survey are available online at www.agcensus.usda.gov.

Alex Minchenkov is a Public Affairs Specialist with USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Marketing and Information Services Office.

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