PRIME POINTS: Dual Purpose Solar Technology: Does It Have a Place on Your Feedlot or Operation?

By Megan Webb, Ph.D. Contributing Editor

In the heat of the summer, do you enjoy the comfort of a cooled home? I certainly do, and the electricity used to cool my home also helps to keep my livestock comfortable. During the hot summer months, electricity also comforts my livestock with access to cool drinking water and continuous airflow with fans. Certainly, these comforts wouldn’t be possible without the invention of electricity by Benjamin Franklin back in 1752.

In production agriculture today, electricity is commonly used to support irrigation, fencing, lighting, heating, cooling, water pumps, software, computer usage and much more. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Resource Management Survey (USDA-ARMS), electricity usage by U.S. farms has remained fairly constant, accounting for 2 percent of agribusinesses total operating expenses. There have been more advancements in how electricity is produced on-farm.

More recently, some operations are considering the addition of renewable resources to produce electricity for their cattle production needs. More than 57,000 U.S. farms have renewable energy from the incorporation of technologies such as solar panels, methane digesters or wind turbines etc. The aim of these technological advancements is to offset electrical costs.

Access to electricity impacts agriculture, and having affordable and reliable energy that is sustainable is important. The number of farm operations producing on-farm and ranch renewable energy doubled between 2008 and 2011. Certainly, if energy costs climb in the future, more farms and ranches may find on-farm power generation profitable. In some states, energy produced from privately owned renewable resources can be considered for sale, whereas in others, that energy only helps to reduce the existing electrical costs.

West Virginia is the nation’s fourth-largest energy producer, with substantial renewable resources that range from traditional coal industries, crude oil, natural gas, wind and solar technologies. From 2019 to 2021, there was an increase in solar technology jobs across the United States.

The photovoltaic (PV) solar arrays application is expanding. Many new and existing agricultural structures and confinement operations such as poultry houses are incorporating solar technology as a mechanism to reduce overhead costs. In a three-year period, these solar arrays are expected to have a 7 percent return on investment. Companies in West Virginia such as Solar Holler and Mountain View Solar are providing the application of these PV solar arrays on agricultural and residential structures.

Traditionally, solar developments have been concentrated on the West and East coasts and in the Southwest. Due to growing government incentives and reduced PV application costs, the use of PV solar arrays in the Midwest is expanding. PV solar array applications are on the rise in Minnesota and Illinois. In these states, many hog and poultry confinements also feature an assortment of PV solar arrays. Nationally, the sheep industry may be the most advanced as it has its own association, the American Solar Grazing Association.

Relative to the other renewable energy resources, solar technology has a lower power density or reduced amount of energy per unit of volume. Therefore, the lower power density of the PV solar arrays require larger tracts of land and utility-scale PV. These larger tracks of utility-scale PV can be used with dual purpose grazing if placed in productive grounds where cattle, calves, sheep or goats may forage. However, it is recommended that these PV solar arrays are placed on existing buildings and residential structures so as not to absorb productive agricultural land.

The beef industry feedlot segment may consider its structure to be most applicable while boosting cattle shade and supporting the operation with electrical production to reduce overhead costs.

The PV solar arrays are becoming more predominate in production agriculture. Could your operation benefit from any dual-purpose strategies while using solar technology to benefit cattle shade and reduce overhead costs with renewable energy creation?