Editor’s note: This is the 11th story in a series exploring how ranchers and farmers are benefiting from renewable energy.
Why are farmers and ranchers actively developing renewable energy projects in states like Colorado and Oregon, but not Wyoming?
Can agricultural producers themselves help promote renewable energy in their own communities?
Those interviewed for this story responded to the second question with a resounding “yes,” but it takes a patchwork of answers to address the first question.
Answering the first might help producers gain traction to tackle the second matter — that is, how can they spur solar, wind, hydro, biomass and geothermal projects in their own counties and states, especially in areas that are currently seeing little development?
Milton Geiger, who works with clean energy, knows firsthand what helps to fuel differences between states, as he served as the energy coordinator for the University of Wyoming Extension before becoming the alternative energy administrator for an electric cooperative in northern Colorado.
“Colorado has a much more robust renewables industry than states like Wyoming, both on a large scale and also on a small scale, like hydro developments on ranches and farms,” Geiger says. “For example, when you’re talking small hydro in Wyoming, I was, by default, the guy who would get phone calls. But in Colorado, there are many people you can contact about renewable energy, and there are a lot of resources available that help to drive development.”
Installations get attention
And once renewable projects start popping up on ranches, farms, rural properties and backyards, people start noticing, Geiger says.
“When ag producers see a small hydro project on the neighbor’s pivot or if they see solar panels going up next door, they begin asking questions — which often leads to an interest in renewables,” he notes. “When that happens, things begin to snowball, and that’s what we’re seeing in Colorado.”
Ranchers, farmers and other residents in Oregon are seeing the same thing happening in their state, says Jed Jorgensen, senior renewable energy program manager for Energy Trust of Oregon.
This nonprofit organization receives approximately $14 million in funding each year from Pacific Power and Portland General Electric. In turn, it uses that money to help customers, including ag producers, develop renewable energy projects. Energy Trust also provides cash incentives and assistance to help improve the energy efficiency of their farming and ranching operations.
“By many measures, Oregon is one of the leaders at the state level when it comes to renewables,” says Jorgensen, who notes that states like Oregon, Washington and Colorado have adopted renewable energy portfolio standards that require increased production of power from renewable energy.
“Our incentives, combined with tax credits and federal grants, can offset up to 75% of installation costs, which can make many projects very financially feasible,” Jorgensen says.
A Centennial State first
Sam Anderson, energy coordinator for the Colorado Department of Agriculture, says that Colorado became the first in the country to pass a renewable portfolio standard by ballot initiative. Since then, the state has been very progressive in promoting renewable energy projects.
For example, he says, a program through CDA provides unique incentives for the agriculture industry. Since 2016, for instance, these incentives have helped about 30 farms and ranches in the state develop hydro projects. Funding has come from more than a dozen sources, including CDA, USDA, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, Colorado Rural Electric Association, The Nature Conservancy and American Rivers.
“Our primary goal is conserving water quantity and addressing water quality, by reducing leaching of salts and selenium into our waterways by converting from flood irrigation to pivots,” Anderson says. “We use the hydro power as an incentive to encourage more farmers and ranchers to engage in more efficient irrigation water practices.”
The majority of states have renewable portfolio standards, whether mandatory or voluntary, including six of the eight states in the Western Farmer-Stockman coverage area. About a dozen states have no standards, however, including Idaho and Wyoming.
Politics help to drive this, says Geiger, who notes that Wyoming’s economy is heavily dependent on natural gas and coal, two big producers of electricity. For this reason and others, renewable energy has taken a backseat in the state.
Since natural gas prices are low, renewable energy costs continue to decline and the future of coal is uncertain. Geiger believes that the prospect for large- and small-scale renewable energy development in Wyoming and other states is bright.
And that’s where people like ranchers and farmers can come to the plate.
“They can visit with their state legislators and community leaders, and they can do more to educate themselves about what resources they have in terms of solar, wind, hydro and geothermal,” Geiger says. “In many cases, it just takes that local champion to start building momentum.”
Incentives help Colorado, Oregon farmers
Ranchers and farmers in Colorado and Oregon are benefiting from programs in their states designed to deliver clean, affordable energy. Here are two examples.
• In Oregon, Evans Farms, a tree and plant nursery, installed a 36-kilowatt solar array to produce enough power to accommodate the farm’s overall energy needs. Energy Trust contributed $44,229 in incentives that, coupled with grants and tax credits, helped make the $258,000 project possible. “Having our irrigation pumping costs covered via solar power in the summer, when our harvest and sales season is slower, has been a great benefit,” says Josh Evans, who runs the farm with his mother, Cindy Lou Pease. The farm is saving nearly $4,000 in energy costs each year.
• In Colorado, farmer and veterinarian Susan Raymond received more than $11,000 for a hydroelectric project through ACRE3, short for Advancing Colorado’s Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, a program within the Colorado Department of Agriculture. That funding, in addition to grants from two USDA programs (Environmental Quality Incentives and Rural Energy for America), allowed Raymond to install two hydroelectric turbines that generate 8 kilowatts of electricity through a net-metering agreement with Delta-Montrose Electric Association. In turn, the electricity powers three center pivots on 37 acres, as well as her veterinary practice facilities.
Waggener writes from Laramie, Wyo.