Farm Energy

Daily Southtown: ELPC Explains Why Will Co. Farmers See Sun as New Cash Crop

Solar farms are cropping up in Will County
By Susan DeMar Lafferty

September 5, 2017

As harvest season approaches, some Will County farmers may already be considering alternatives to the future of their corn and soybean fields. They are learning that the sun they now rely on to produce vegetables, could be harnessed into a new cash crop.

Empowered by Illinois’ new Future Energy Jobs Act, solar companies have approached area farmers in recent weeks about converting a portion of their property into solar farms.

Cypress Creek Renewables, which currently operates solar farms in eight states, has an agreement with a landowner in Crete Township to convert 45 acres on Goodenow Road into a five MegaWatt solar farm, enough to power 800 homes, said Scott Novack, Cypress’ senior developer. They are looking for more sites.

Frankfort officials have just begun to discuss a concept for a 32-acre community solar farm that could generate enough energy to power 1,200 homes, according to developer Josh Barrett, of Solarshift LLC, Homer Glen.

“This is totally new to us,” said Mark Schneidewind, manager of the Will County Farm Bureau. About 100 farmers recently received letters from a few different companies and about a dozen have retained a lawyer to negotiate the finer details, he said.

With offers of $800 per acre, compared to $160 to $180 for a really good crop yield, some older farmers are considering this as a steady cash flow as they head into retirement, Schneidewind said.

Others are concerned about leasing their farms for 20 to 30 years, and want to know if it would restrict their ability to use their land, or interfere with drain tiles, he said.

He said he does not see this as the future of farming, because the ground in Will County is “prime farmland,” but he acknowledged that this gives people an alternative.

Novack said Cypress needs at least 20 acres in close proximity to power lines or substations, and are “actively working on” five to 10 projects in Will County. Realistically, he said he expects they will move forward with one or two.

It will be at least 2019 before a facility is operating. According to CCR’s website, the entire process, from signing the lease to completing construction, takes 18 to 24 months.

Cypress invited area landowners to a recent community meeting, but drew only one, along with two county board members — Judy Ogalla and Laurie Summers, he said.

The farm bureau has held two seminars, in each of the last two Aprils, attracting about 100 people each, to provide information and answer questions.

Schneidewind also has been at the table with Will County’s Land Use Department to discuss how best to regulate this burgeoning business.

The county currently is “not very restrictive,” but does require a special use permit for solar projects — which adds an extra layer of scrutiny, said Samantha Bluemer, of the Land Use Department. As officials update the zoning codes, they want to ensure these are “safe developments” and protect the landowner, she said.

Will County recently won an award for being “solar smart” for simplifying its zoning ordinances and making “alternative energy” an option on its building permit application. It also has enhanced training for permitting and inspection staff and increased public resources regarding solar energy systems and consumer protections, in order to promote positive, sustainable growth.

As they review zoning codes, they are looking at decommissioning the land, mitigating the agricultural land, requiring bonds, letters of credit, and fire training, Bluemer said.

While officials in Frankfort are “excited” about having a solar energy field and contributing to renewable energy, development director Jeff Cook said they want to make sure the site will be properly maintained over the years. A special use permit will be required.

“Renewable energy is a hot topic, a timely subject, but we don’t know all the ins and outs,” Cook said, adding that they are looking at Barrett’s proposal from a land use perspective, and while the location “makes sense,” the plan needs “more details.”

Barrett has proposed a community solar farm on 32 acres on the southwest corner of Pfeiffer Road and Sauk Trail, where it could easily connect to a nearby ComEd substation.

Unlike the larger scale utility farms, Barrett said he would sell solar panels to residents, who would then receive credit on their electric bill for producing their own power.

Given that the majority of rooftops on homes are not conducive to solar panels, community solar farms allow residents to buy into renewable energy at half the cost, with optimal production, he said.

He is now working out zoning issues with the village, which currently requires a special use permit, he said. He hopes to conduct pre-sales at the beginning of 2018, open to Frankfort residents first, then others. If there is not enough interest, the project would not go forward, Barrett said.

Knowing that Frankfort is concerned about aesthetics, he plans not only landscaped berms to seclude the site, but will incorporate native plants and pollinators to promote water filtration and create wildlife habitats.

The panels are designed to last 25 years, and if approved, this site would be developed in three phases, each to produce two megawatts (MW) of power — enough to power 1,200 homes, Barrett said.

“It doesn’t produce any negative effects, just clean energy,” he said.

Brad Klein, senior attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, agreed.

The state law sets benchmarks for creating 4,300 megawatts of new solar and wind power —enough electricity to power millions of homes — to be built in Illinois by 2030.

That goal, along with incentives and tax credits, has led to a lot of interest statewide, Klein said.

The Illinois Power Agency is now working to implement that law, and drafting regulations, but development is happening before the details have been finalized, he said.

Still, Klein said he sees only benefits, and the ELPC has been a key proponent of renewable energy.

“We are really interested in finding the best ways to make sure solar processes are integrated well into the landscape,” he said.

Among the “best ways” are creating pollinator habitats under the panels, which may make the land more productive, and making sure the land is restored to its original condition if no longer used for solar farming, he said.

These farms also are expected to generate more revenue for local schools and communities since solar companies would pay property taxes on land they lease — likely at a higher rate than agricultural land, Klein said.

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The Daily Yonder: ELPC’s Olsen Hopes Paris Accord Pullout Doesn’t Hamper Successful Rural Clean Energy Projects

The Daily Yonder

USDA Climate Change Approach Faces Diminished Role, Worrying Many AG Leaders 

 June 6, 2017

By Bryce Oates

As the President withdraws from the Paris Climate Accords and outlines budget priorities, critics worry about a directional shift with USDA Climate Change.

President Trump announced that the U. S. would “pull out” of the Paris Climate Accords last week, signaling a clear direction for his Administration’s approach to the challenge of a changing, more energy-charged climate.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue applauded the move, stating, “President Trump promised that he would put America first and he has rightly determined that the Paris accord was not in the best interests of the United States. In addition to costing our economy trillions of dollars and millions of jobs, the accord also represented a willful and voluntary ceding of our national sovereignty. The agreement would have had negligible impact on world temperatures, especially since other countries and major world economies were not being held to the same stringent standards as the United States.”

The news does not please some members of the agricultural community, who believe that USDA should be a partner and supporter of efforts to assist farmers in addressing climate change.

“The withdrawal continues a troubling trend,” said Andrew Bahrenburg, National Policy Director of the National Young Farmers Coalition. “The young farmers we represent, to see their President speak about climate change this way, to walk away from progress we’re making on climate resiliency, progress farmers are making to cut emissions and develop on-the-ground solutions, it’s demoralizing. It’s just incredibly discouraging.”

NYFC’s members have already moved on in the discussion about climate change as a reality according to Bahrenburg. They see the evidence every day, with hotter summers, warmer winters, more intense droughts, more intense floods. Their project, Conservation Generation, seeks to assist farmers in the arid West with tools and resources to remain viable in a water-constrained environment.

“While we remain committed to working with Secretary Perdue, he has defended proposed cuts to key conservation programs, cuts to scientific research, a 30% reduction to the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program,” said Bahrenburg. He said that a group of young farmers are traveling to Washington, DC, this week to discuss their opinion with policymakers.

“All of these actions, the budget proposal, walking away from the global community, leaving the Paris Accords, taken together form a real indication of where USDA is headed,” said Tom Driscoll, Director of Conservation Policy for the National Farmers Union. “It’s a scary proposition.”

Driscoll said that many NFU members utilize the climate research and data presented by the Climate Hubs, originating in the Obama Administration. And NFU member families often participate in USDA’s REAP Program, both as farmers and workers for solar companies utilizing REAP (Renewable Energy for America Program) grants. REAP funding, which support renewable energy projects in rural communities, was singled out to be eliminated in the Trump Agriculture budget.

“This is a very, very sensitive time for farmers. There’s a credit crisis upon us. Prices and farm income are low. Choking off programs that deliver cost savings for farmers, that help them to become clean energy producers, undermining the information and tools that help farmers stay in business, it’s just irresponsible for them to behave this way.”

“The Administration’s proposal to eliminate farm bill funding for REAP is not only short-sighted from a climate change adaptation and mitigation perspective, it is also completely counter to their budget narrative,” said Greg Fogel, Policy Director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, in an email to Daily Yonder.

“We’ve heard a lot about agriculture needing to ‘do more with less,” and that is exactly what REAP does. This program puts farmers in the driver’s seat by giving them more control over their energy usage and costs, and helping them to reduce both. In a time when the agricultural economy is in downturn, that kind of independence and control is more important than ever,” said Fogel.

Others have also applauded previous USDA actions related to climate change and energy programs. “We have a program here that helps establish energy projects in rural Wisconsin dairies, for poultry farms of the Southeast, for cattle producers all over America. REAP serves every state, every agricultural sector, and has strong bipartisan support. We hope it continues,” said Andy Olsen, Senior Policy Advocate for the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Olsen said that he sees rural projects and programs working to create jobs and cut carbon emissions across the board, particularly due to USDA participation and focus. “Programs that cut energy costs for farmers, that increase local energy production through solar and wind, that increase economic investment and activity, that increase jobs in rural America, what’s not to like about that,” asked Olsen, questioning the Trump Administration’s budget priorities.

When presented with these questions about the Trump USDA’s approach to climate change, a USDA spokesperson told the Daily Yonder through email:

“The President has proposed his budget, and now the appropriators in Congress will make their mark on it. We cannot know what form the final budget will take, and so it is premature to comment on the specific impacts it may have on any USDA program. Secretary Perdue has communicated to all USDA staff that there is no sense in sugar coating the budget, but he will be as transparent as possible throughout the budget process.”

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Bloomberg: Harvesting Sunshine More Lucrative Than Crops at Some U.S. Farms

For more than a century, Dawson Singletary’s family has grown tobacco, peanuts and cotton on a 530-acre farm amid the coastal flatlands of North Carolina. Now he’s making money from a different crop: solar panels.

Singletary has leased 34 acres of his Bladen County farm to Strata Solar LLC for a 7-megawatt array, part of a growing wave of solar deals that are transforming U.S. farmland and boosting income for farmers.

Farmland has become fertile territory for clean energy, as solar and wind developers in North America, Europe and Asia seek more flat, treeless expanses to build. That’s also been a boon for struggling U.S. family farms that must contend with floundering commodity prices.

“There is not a single crop that we could have grown on that land that would generate the income that we get from the solar farm,” said Singletary, 65.

The rise in solar comes as the value of crops in the Southeast — with the exception of tobacco — has dropped. Cotton prices have fallen 71 percent in the last five years. Soybeans are down 33 percent and peanuts have slipped 16 percent.

Solar companies, meanwhile, are paying top dollar, offering annual rents of $300 to $700 an acre, according to the NC Sustainable Energy Association. That’s more than triple the average rent for crop and pasture land in the state, which ranges from $27 to $102 an acre, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

The economic incentives spurring solar will be discussed at a Bloomberg New Energy Finance conference in New York starting April 4.

“Solar developers want to find the cheapest land near substations where they can connect,” said Brion Fitzpatrick, director of project development for Inman Solar Inc. of Atlanta. “That’s often farmland.”

Developers have installed solar panels on about 7,000 acres of North Carolina pasture and cropland since 2013, adding almost a gigawatt of generating capacity, according to the NC Sustainable Energy Association. Georgia has added 200 megawatts on fields and cleared forests over the same period, much of it farmland, according to the Southface Energy Institute of Atlanta.

The number of megawatts developers can generate per acre of farmland varies, based on weather patterns, size of the panels and contours of the land. On Singletary’s farm, Strata Solar installed 21,600 panels, each about 6 feet by 3 feet (1.8 meters by 914 centimeters). Combined, they can power as many as 5,000 local homes.

Long-Term Contracts

Farmers typically lease a portion of their land, signing 15- to 20-year contracts with developers who install the panels and sell the power to local utilities. In rare cases, farmers have leased their entire property to solar companies.

Singletary signed a 15-year lease in 2013, with two 10-year extension options, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based Strata sells the power to Duke Energy Corp. He declined to disclose financial terms.

Government incentives have played a key role in the spread of solar farms built on real farms. North Carolina granted developers tax credits equal to 35 percent of their projects’ costs though a program that expired at the end of 2015, helping make the state the third-biggest U.S. solar market. In Georgia, the Public Service Commission passed a bill in 2013 requiring the state’s largest utility, Southern Co.’s Georgia Power, to buy 525 megawatts of solar by 2016. Both policies sent companies scouring for open space to build.

Solar panels have buoyed tax bases in impoverished rural counties, said Tim Echols, a member of the Georgia Public Service Commission. They also let farmers diversify their income with revenue that’s not subject to markets or unpredictable weather patterns.

‘Stable Income’

“Solar and wind farms have become a new stable income stream for farmers — and they don’t fluctuate with commodity prices,” said Andy Olsen, who promotes clean energy projects in rural areas for the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center.

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Vox: Rural electric co-ops are getting into solar

In the US, rural areas and constituencies have typically weighed against progress on clean energy. But that may be changing.

A new story out of Wisconsin illustrates that a slow, tentative shift is underway, as rural electricity consumers and the utilities that serve them take a new look at the benefits of solar power.

In fact, if you squint just right, you can even glimpse a future in which rural America is at the vanguard of decarbonization. The self-reliance and local jobs enabled by renewable energy are of unique value in rural areas, and rural leaders are beginning to recognize that solar isn’t just for elitist coastal hippies any more.

To appreciate what’s happening, let’s back up a bit.

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ELPC Presents at USDA’s Forum on Rural Energy for America

???????????????????????????????On Friday, Feb. 6th, ELPC Senior Policy Advocate Andy Olsen spoke at the USDA’s National Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) Stakeholder Forum, which outlined program improvements since REAP’s recent overhaul and highlighted stakeholder successes. To access a free webcast of the event, click here.

New ELPC Report: Farm Energy Success Stories (3rd Edition)

FESS_2014_CoverThe new edition of ELPC’s Farm Energy Success Stories features over a dozen projects from across the nation funded by the Farm Bill’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which ELPC has long championed.  These projects span a wide variety of technologies — including biomass, anaerobic digesters, energy efficiency, geothermal, hydroelectric, solar and wind — that have had a positive impact on rural development.

The new Farm Bill passed earlier in 2014 provides $881 million for Energy Title programs like REAP over 10 years, benefiting small- and mid-sized farms and ranches, as well as rural small businesses. ELPC’s Farm Bill Clean Energy Team has led the charge to extend the Farm Bill’s Energy Title programs and make these programs work well on the ground.

Learn more at ELPC’s www.FarmEnergy.org.

ELPC’s Andy Olsen talks Farm Energy with Farm Radio

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ELPC’s Andy Olsen joined the National Association of Farm Broadcasters to discuss the Energy Title in the recently passed Farm Bill. ELPC worked hard to maintain support for the important program with helps bring clean, renewable energy projects to rural communities.

“The top-funded program is the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which provides grants and loan guarantees to farmers, ranchers, and rural small businesses and rural electric cooperatives to install energy efficiency and also a wide range of renewable energy technologies,” Olsen explained. “And that received $250 million in mandatory funding over 5 years. The next priority, in terms of funding, is the Biorefinery Systems Program, and that program provides loan guarantees for advanced biofuel production plants. This is an important program to get cellulosic biofuels, as well as other new biomass technologies, in place.”

Listen to the story here:

Olsen explained the difference between a grant and loan guarantee.

“A grant is actually a cost share from the federal government in a project. They may pick up, say, 25% of the cost for an activity. Whereas a loan guarantee basically says the banker wants to provide a loan to get a project built, then the federal government will cover a certain percentage of that loan in the event of a default.”

REAP can serve every state and every agricultural sector, according to Olsen.

“The eligible recipients for that are agriculture producers of all sorts, urban and rural, as well as rural small businesses, and rural small businesses include rural electric cooperatives. And the technologies that are supported in this are pretty broad so that every ag sector can choose the technology that best meets their needs. This has been used for cutting energy bills for producers and boosting their profits in a wide range of uses for a wide range of sectors.”

People can submit applications now for REAP funding and find information at FarmEnergy.org. Deadlines have yet to be announced, but Olsen said USDA staff are working on getting those notices out.

Think Progress: What The New Farm Bill Means For Energy And The Environment

House and Senate negotiators unveiled a new five-year Farm Bill on Monday, a $956 billion piece of legislation that’s been worked on for the past two years and, if passed, will be in effect for the next five.

The House is expected to vote on the bill on Wednesday, with the Senate voting sometime after. The bipartisan bill has gained attention from some liberals for its cuts to food stamps — a program that makes up about 79 percent of the Farm Bill’s cost — and from some conservatives, who think the current bill doesn’t save enough compared to the current funding. But there’s also several energy and environmental implications in this Farm Bill, especially in the realm of conservation, which at $56 billion makes up 6 percent of the bill’s total funding.

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Press Release: Farm Bill Proposal Preserves Clean Energy Programs

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

January 28, 2014

Farm Bill Preserves Core Clean Energy Programs

Important Energy Initiatives Good for Rural Development, Jobs, Farm Income

 After three years of stops and starts, debate and negotiations, the Congressional Farm Bill Conference Committee has released a compromise bill between the House and the Senate that includes mandatory funding for a downsizedEnergy Title, including the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) and Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP).

If passed by Congress, the funding for REAP and BCAP in the compromise would ensure the popular programs will continue to support diverse technologies for renewable energy and energy efficiency initiatives in farm communities across the nation.

“Every state in the nation has benefitted from REAP projects and the program has broad support across party lines,” Olsen explained. “We thank Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwomen Debbie Stabenow (MI) for her leadership in preserving REAP and BCAP.”

“We also thank Ranking Member Thad Cochran (MS), House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (OK) and Ranking Member Collin Peterson (MN) for their bipartisan support for farm energy,” Olsen said.

“For over a decade, REAP proved its value by creating jobs and farm income in farm communities while advancing homegrown renewable energy and energy efficiency,” said Andy Olsen, Senior Policy Analyst for the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC). “With this support, REAP remains a bright spot in rural energy.”

REAP offers grants and loan guarantees for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects owned by farmers, ranchers, rural small businesses and rural electric co-ops. BCAP provides incentives to jump start sustainable energy crops that also provide conservation benefits.

“While the overall Energy Title funding has been reduced, this compromise provides the certainty for renewed growth in rural energy projects under both REAP and BCAP,” Olsen said. The bill announced late Monday by the Farm Bill Conference Committee includes $881 million for Energy Title programs over ten years.

For more, including examples of Farm Bill energy title success stories visit http://www.farmenergy.org.

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