There are some exciting things happening in the world of alternative energy that are allowing people and businesses to move away from using pollution and climate-change causing fossil fuels.  With any number of fully electric vehicles now available for sale, and with solar panels getting cheaper by the day, the average homeowner in California can free themselves completely from the clenches of Big Oil while creating the energy for their own transportation (Or at least, bartering for it with their local utility).  Of course, to achieve this energy freedom and the long-term savings it entails, you need to make a significant investment.

In agriculture, much of the energy use is by tractors, and no one is talking about powering those using electricity generated from solar.  But farmers also use huge amounts of energy to pump water.  And until very recently, California agriculture has been thwarted in any attempts to jump on the alternative energy bandwagon by rules put into place by PG&E to protect their monopoly over electricity sales.  On our farm, we have 6 different pumps in 6 different spots with 6 different electric bills.  Under the old rules, solar panels installed at one pump could only be used to offset the electric usage at that one pump.  The panels would be giving electricity to PGE all year, but the pump only running six or eight months.

After a decade of fighting with PGE lobbyists and supporters in the State Capitol, farmers and alternative energy advocates finally won with a law that allows people who generate electricity to apply their credits to their total electric bill, irregardless of the location.  Around Yolo and Solano counties, solar arrays have now sprouted on the roofs of barns, over gravel parking lots, and other areas on farms where energy can be generated without hurting crop yields.

Unfortunately, there are few incentive programs for farmers looking to go “net zero” in their electric consumption.  Pumps, coolers, dehydrators, etc. use lots of electricity, and offsetting them takes many solar panels.  It’s a big investment.  A handful of companies are now offering “leased” energy generation whereby they collect the credits in exchange for lowering your electric bill.  But it would be nice to see a government backed program offering low-interest loans.  I doubt we’ll see that as long as utilities continue to exercise their dominance over state and federal lawmakers.

Here at Terra Firma, our electric bill for the year runs around $30,000.  We are just now in the first stages of planning to install a solar array that will help offset that cost.  We also have an inoperative 1980s era wind generator on the farm that could be refurbished and put to work.  But before we can start saving money and reducing our carbon footprint, we will have to spend tens of thousands of dollars.  And while energy bought from PG&E or the oil companies is a tax deductible expense, installing solar panels on your house or barn raises its value and leads to higher property taxes.

I am a strong believer that government should provide creative incentives for good behavior and disincentives for harmful ones.  Right now we are failing to do this in ways that will encourage and allow large numbers of people and businesses to move away from fossil fuels.  It shouldn’t cost anyone extra to reduce their carbon footprint.