Over the years, when anyone would ask if we have any solar power at Terra Firma, I would respond: “Of course, our entire farm runs on solar power, like all farms”.
I was referring rather cheekily to the fact that plants use sunlight to create the foods that humans (and other creatures) consume to power ourselves and our society. Agriculture is far and away humanity’s largest application of power from the sun.
But no, we didn’t have any solar panels generating electricity. Until recently, that is.
Not that we had no use for them. Our farm uses tremendous amounts of electricity to run our irrigation pumps, wash our produce, and cool it. But the sheer amount of electricity we use makes self-generation feel impossible. In order to offset all our usage, we would need hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of solar panels covering acres.
Generally speaking, I don’t believe in covering up good farmland — which as I explained above is already generating energy from the sun — with solar panels. While there are companies exploring “dual use” solar that doesn’t require taking farmland out of production, standard installations preclude farming the land they sit on.
IMHO, every roof and and parking lot should be covered in solar before any farmland is taken out of production. Our biggest single use of electricity in one spot is our packing shed, which has a huge amount of roof space. But we don’t own it and our landlord has never been interested in solar.
We identified another ideal spot for a solar installation: on the roof of the barn where we wash your produce, located on land that we own. We secured financing for the project and then got a quote from an installer…a year ago.
I’ll spare you the long story, but in short, the county would not let us put the panels on the barn roof — or anywhere near the barn. And they caused numerous delays. The panels ended up in a field we will now no longer farm. And the project, which could have easily been up and running in a few months, took almost a year to complete.
To put it bluntly, this is not how we get to Carbon Freedom, and despite all the talk from our leaders, they are failing. We have a complicated process that relies on individual homeowners and businesses to take the initiative. And it is essentially only available to well-off people who can afford a 10-year payback on their investment (property owners). We’ve put rooftop solar in the same category as a new roof or a swimming pool — a home improvement whose benefit accrues only to the person who owns it. But that is the wrong paradigm, because every solar panel that gets installed is helping the world reduce carbon pollution.
At this point in our climate crisis, we need a campaign to make it easier to get solar panels than it is to get cable TV or a cell phone. Ideally, it should be something that anyone can set up themselves at home in their backyard and plug into the wall. And we need a funding mechanism akin to auto loans or mortgages that takes just a day or two to get approval for most people. Solar panels should be exempted from local agency permitting fees. And government subsidies should be more comprehensive, direct and immediate than the current tax rebate system, which does not even cover the entire expense. The campaign should have a simple and catchy slogan: “Make Solar Free and Easy”.
In the meantime, I am happy to be able to say that Terra Firma is now — finally — offsetting a part of our energy use by generating electricity here on the farm.