Solar photovoltaic panel

Agriculture leaders are increasingly harvesting – and harnessing – another kind of “crop” down on the farm in the Volunteer State: homegrown, renewable energy.

As renewable energy sources gain popularity thanks to their affordability and sustainability, progressive Tennessee farmers are tapping into clean, alternative options produced right here in their home state, offering a variety of benefits and creating jobs.

Fueling the Future

One utility district in West Tennessee is helping pave the path of the future for the use of natural gas on the farm.

Pat Riley, manager of Gibson County Utility District, says compressed natural gas – or, simply, natural gas – is an alternative to gasoline, diesel fuel and propane with the benefits of being a clean- burning, domestic energy source that comes at a significantly cheaper price.

“The farmers are loving it because it’s cleaner, greener and all about sustainability,” Riley says.

Not long ago, the utility district saw an opportunity to provide natural gas to farmers after the area went through several hot, dry summers. Gas mains were extended so farmers could use natural gas to power engines. Additionally, 19 pivots were installed in the system over the last three years.

“We looked at it as an opportunity,” Riley says. “We started running gas lines out to meet farmers’ needs … What they are doing is using a natural gas engine to generate the power to the pump, which pumps the water out through the agricultural pivot to water their crops. There are about 45 in the West Tennessee area, and we have 19 of those.”

natural gas vehicles [INFOGRAPHIC]

Riley notes the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides a Rural Energy for America Program grant to financially help farmers convert existing diesel and electric powered pivots to run on natural gas.

The utility company hopes to deliver compressed natural gas to farmers via mobile fueling stations once the tractors and combines start running on compressed natural gas, creating on-site, fast-fill fueling stations.

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“My hope is that combines and tractors will eventually run on compressed natural gas,” Riley says.

While the use of compressed natural gas and establishment of stations are on the rise in the U.S., Riley stresses it’s still largely one of the best-kept secrets.

And widespread use of compressed natural gas would make farmers, and the U.S. as a whole, more independent of overseas oil suppliers, he says.

“It’s as American as it can be – it’s an American fuel, and we won’t be subject to the whims of world oil prices,” Riley says. “I think that’s one thing farmers like, and that it’s abundant and clean … It could have a huge impact on the farming community.”

Solar Fields

Solar energy as a clean, alternative fuel is gaining ground in Tennessee, which is home to multiple solar farms. State funding, like the $23.5 million Solar Opportunity Fund through the Volunteer State Solar Initiative, helps support local solar manufacturers, installers and consumers.

In 2015, Bill Parker installed a solar panel system at his grain bin facility at Parker Farms in Lauderdale County. Solar energy is now helping offset electrical costs at the facility through credits on power it generates.

“We’re very conscientious about conservation, and solar is a part of that,” he says. “But there are also financial benefits.”

Parker first learned about solar farming at a conservation convention in Nashville from Lightwave Solar Electric of Tennessee. He then committed to a Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Green Power Switch Generation Partners Program, in which TVA purchases electric output of qualifying business systems. Additionally, benefits like tax incentives and USDA Rural Energy for America Program grants helped make the decision to commit appealing.

“The benefits and financial incentives appealed to me,” Parker says.

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According to Parker, installation was designed around the facility’s annual energy usage.

“I had enough electrical demand there that I could go with the largest solar panel system, 50 kW, which was the largest commercial size,” he says.

With the incentives and TVA’s program, Parker is certain the investment will pay off in several years and completely pay back on his yearly electrical costs, which total more than $15,000 per year. Without the grant and tax incentives, it could take 12 to 15 years.

“There’s a large electrical need there at the facility, and it’s helped reduce my electric bill,” he says.

TN solar panels [INFOGRAPHIC]

Harnessing Power

To Greene County farmer Wayne Brown, harvesting solar power is just like harvesting any other kind of traditional field crop. He and his wife, Virginia, lease their land at Braunhurst Farms in Chuckey to a renewable energy source company that will generate solar power to be used by the TVA.

“I think it’s a really positive thing, and it will preserve my farm for my children and future generations,” Brown says.

The U.S. Army veteran has been growing soybeans for years in the fields of his farm, which has been in his family since the early 1800s. Now approaching retirement, Brown wants to keep his farm active and preserve the land; he seized the opportunity to do just that after North Carolina-based company Birdseye Renewable Energy approached him in 2013.

That company is now leasing nearly 80 acres of Brown’s 1,500-acre farm to establish a 100-acre tract, installing acres of solar panels, Brown says.

In late 2015, the farmer was in the process of prepping the land and getting ready for the big changes.

“This is still like growing crops on the farm, but with electricity instead,” Brown says. “I’m looking toward the future.”

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