A USDA program that gives grants to farmers looking to add solar power to their operations is getting increased interest. Applications are up by fifty percent in some midwestern states — it's a trend that may continue, even without the government’s help.
Chris Bohr’s farm in Martinsburg, Missouri, has hundreds of acres of soybeans and corn. It also has a 5,000 head hog barn that requires a lot of electricity to power its ventilation system, cooling fans and lights.
About fifty yards away from the barn are three rows of solar panels. Bohr is among a growing number of farmers that are generating solar power to meet their needs.
Bohr received a Rural Energy for America Program, or REAP, grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to help pay for his solar panels. And the number of farmers applying for the grants is going up.
Nathan Tutt, a rural development specialist with the USDA’s Missouri office said there has been a 50% increase in applications for REAP grants in the past two years. While the program funds all kinds of renewable energy programs, the kinds of applications Tutt has received are mostly for solar.
“Over 80% of our applications the past few years have been solar related,” Tutt said. “The economics of the industry has made it more palatable for people to implement that system into their operations.”
Tutt said there is enough money in the program to fund all but a handful of applications, but that could change if the popularity continues to grow. REAP has $250 million available for renewable energy. They fund small projects where a farmer has to pay at least 75% of the total cost.
Chris Bohr calls the program a “great long term investment.” Adding his solar panels in 2018 cost him $87,000. A REAP grant paid for $20,000 of that total.
“These systems are pretty well maintenance free,” Bohr said. “Everything is monitored by computers, we have apps on our phones where we can actually look at the amount of electricity that is being produced on an hourly basis.”
Bohr said before he added solar, his electricity bills were more than $15,000. Now they are are less than $5,000.
Bohr said the panels will pay for themselves in seven years, and after that, he will enjoy lower costs to run his farm.
Bohr said he applied for the REAP grant primarily because it made economic sense, but it wasn’t the only reason.
“If we can do projects like this to help our environment, to save our natural resources and take advantage of something that God gives us every day, like the sun, then we need to take advantage of it,” Bohr said.
During the sunny summer months when the solar panels produce more electricity than the hog barn needs, Bohr sells power back to his electric co-op that is his utility provider.
Bohr said his co-op has been a very willing partner in assisting him make solar work on his farm.
The non-profit nature of co-ops and their dedication to rural areas makes them well positioned to assist customers with innovative energy projects, according to Jan Ahler, Director of Energy Solutions with The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
Ahler said it makes sense for farmers to look at all options to help save money, and solar can be a viable answer for many operations.
“Farmers are able to diversify their revenue streams with new power solutions. So they not only have income coming in from their agricultural production, but they also have money saved from the production of solar electricity,” Ahler said.
Reap is funded at $235 million per year through 2023. Currently most applications are funded, but that could change if interest continues to grow.
But Chris Bohr said he is moving forward with installing solar at another hog barn he owns near Thompson, Missouri, even if he doesn’t get another REAP grant.
Bohr said it still makes economic sense in the long run.
“You know, a lot of people today don’t understand agriculture. We’re very common sense thinkers, we think about what’s practical for our operation day in, day out, and what’s right for our communities,” Bohr said.