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Eco-friendly Farming: Sowing the Seeds of Renewable Energy

Twelve percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, and six to nine percent of farm expenses are energy related.

Using renewable energy in agriculture has benefits for both the economy and the environment, and many farms around the world are using the abundance of on-site renewable resources to produce energy.

Here is a look at how renewable energy — from solar power to microbial digestion — is changing the future of agriculture.

Photosynthesis to Photovoltaics

With expanses of land and a need to source power to remote locations, solar energy is well-suited for life on the farm.

In the United States, the number of solar projects on farms funded by the USDA’s REAP program increased fivefold between 2007 and 2009, according to a report by the USDA (pdf).

Solar installations can be placed on lands that can’t be used for food production, or even on unusable water sources. For example, Far Niente Winery in Oakland, CA, floated nearly half of its 400kW system panels over a 1-acre gray water retention pond, reducing the amount of land needed to generate energy.

Wind Power for Farms

Wind energy in the United States is soaring with potential. Many states have excellent wind energy conditions and three states in particular – Kansas, Texas, and North Dakota – have enough wind to power the entire nation. The United States just surpassed its 50GW milestone for wind energy, and the industry is now capable of providing enough energy to power 13 million homes across the United States.

The majority of this energy comes from large-scale wind farms, but wind energy on farms is also an important resource. Wind turbines can be installed alongside crops or even on the same land animals graze on. The turbines can generate enough energy to power the farm, or even produce extra energy to sell back to the grid.

Waste Not, Want Not: Producing Energy from Waste

The energy from agricultural waste can be converted to biogas. Biogas is comprised mostly of methane, the same compound that gives natural gas its power, and can be used in turbines designed for natural gas.

Feedstock such as rice husks and cheese whey can be used to generate electricity, and anaerobic digesters can be used to convert animal waste to biogas. In addition to generating electricity, these microbes also treat the waste and produce fertilizer.

Securing the Future

Using renewable energy on farms isn’t just about saving the environment or reducing energy costs. In the developing world, using renewable energy in agriculture helps improve local economies, ensure food security, and alleviate poverty.

Powering Agriculture is a USAID-funded program focused on promoting and funding the use of renewable energy in agriculture. The United Nations estimated that, to feed the world’s population, at least 70% more food will need to be grown on the same amount of agricultural land. To meet this demand, Powering Agriculture is working on clean energy solutions to sustainably intensify agriculture production.

Renewable energy on farms is a positive sign, says David Lobell, professor of Environmental and Earth Systems Science and a fellow at the Center for Food Security and Environment at Stanford. “We need every little bit,” he says. “The agricultural system is not unchangeable, and as conditions change, there will be need for new innovations.”

This article was originally published on ecomagination and was republished with permission.

Lead image courtesy of Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker

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