Green energy in agriculture, sustainability for all

Dianne Anderson
By Dianne Anderson July 10th, 2018
For business

John Diener has spent a lot of time and personal energy getting down to the true cost of lowering his carbon footprint, which now equates to zero net energy usage on his 4,000-acre San Joaquin Valley farm. How did he do it? Through a combination of clean technologies and eco-conscious practices, to start.

For the past 15 years, he has managed to plow through differing politics while collecting carbon credits for his efforts along the way, but it’s complicated.

“It’s life science, it’s not as simple as people want to make it out to be. It’s a matrix and you live within this matrix,” said Diener, president and CEO of Red Rock Ranch in Five Points in California.

At his mom-and-pop operation, Diener grows about ten different crops, half of which are organic. He uses green composts to avoid commercial fertilizers and says agriculture is the best place to build a green business – literally.

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To help bring his farm’s net energy consumption to zero, Diener uses solar, wind and biodiesel energy; but consistent, uniform power on the farm is essential, and batteries aren’t big enough to power up huge tractors. However, to Diener, the most important initiative on his farm is to keep mined fuel pollution from entering the atmosphere.

“It has to scale through to make it work. The money we need to have to make this whole thing go, it takes a long time to get there,” he said.

At the end of the day, all the farm’s energy needs are met

Diener uses his own low-carbon biodiesel to make use of wood waste, and refuses to burn fossil fuels, which at one time comprised 50 percent of his energy usage. He further lessens agricultural pollution through the no-tillage method, his own pilot Integrated On-Farm Drainage Management prototype, and by working with the local water district to implement hydropower. All these practices help Red Rock Ranch recycle existing carbon, rather than produce it.

“You’re just taking the carbon and moving it around. It’s low carbon, that’s what we’re trying to get to,” he said.

Diener also taps into government grants wherever he can. While the grants are helpful, government support takes time, and time is money. He has received a number grants over the past eight years, but they pay out on average after 180 days while winding through the bureaucracy, and most small farms can’t afford to wait that long.

There are incentives, as well as hindrances

When he was just starting out, Diener recalls how it took over two years just at the county level to get a building permit for the system installation that jumpstarted their clean energy goals.

“We’re trying to be lined up and do it properly so we don’t get tagged. We’re trying to do it right, to stand up in front of people and say this is what we’ve done. Hopefully, people will see it’s a good thing to do,” said Diener, who holds a degree in Agricultural Economics and Business Management from University of California, Davis.

Over the years, his environmentally-friendly agribusiness has paid off; Diener has garnered numerous awards, including the Governor’s Innovative Irrigator Award, and the Leopold Conservation Award.

For farmers, making the switch to clean energy must add economic value to be sustainable. Luckily, the costs accrued on the energy side are usually not Red Rock Ranch’s biggest. Still, going green requires a deeper personal commitment to the environment.

Having attended seminary for six years, Diener comes at life from a unique perspective.

“I am part of the world where I decided I was going to do it differently,” he said. “I didn’t go to Haight-Ashbury, and I didn’t go to the Redwoods. I decided I was going to do it here, to make the world a better place.”

Funding and Resources

Support for renewable technologies has come a long way in the past thirteen years since Steve Clemmer, director of Energy Research & Analysis with the Union of Concerned Scientists, started his research on green energy in agriculture.

Clemmer says renewables are starting to catch up to cost-savings, with some proactive utility companies even helping farmers deploy new, cleaner technologies.

In other cases, there are still barriers; interconnecting farm energy systems to the grid, or attempting to change incentive policies for renewables, for example, continue to pose a challenge to green farmers. But overall, upfront costs are lower.

Additionally, new financing options are available to farmers who wish to invest in green tech systems, either through traditional banks, or through lease purchase arrangements with solar companies.

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“Community solar projects where the potential is on your land or house, you can sign up for a project that’s located somewhere else and essentially have an investment in that project and share in the benefits. All these different options have opened up to help farmers and others,” Clemmer said.

At the federal level, investment tax credits have benefited the farming community. The Renewable Energy for America program, part of the Farm Bill, provides several incentives and loans for farmers and other small rural businesses to invest in renewable energy solutions.

Recently, the Senate Agriculture Committee voted 20 to 1 to maintain funding for that very program, which means it’s safe – for now.

“[The Renewable Energy for America] program has been a big success story. It’s affected every state in the country, and is really popular with farmers, ranchers and small businesses. The proposal for that program typically greatly exceeds the funds that are available for it,” Clemmer said.

California is on track to reach 50 percent renewable energy usage by 2030 and many other states also have specific allocations for renewable projects. Even in the ranchlands of Texas, Clemmer says farmers are reaping huge cost benefits, first with wind power, and lately with solar installations.

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An author of several reports on renewables in agriculture, Clemmer says that photovoltaic installation costs have decreased by about 70 percent since 2010. Costs to generate electricity from wind have also fallen by more than two-thirds over the last decade, making renewable energy more cost effective for all.

“Renewable technologies, solar or wind in particular, provide a stable source of income for farmers,” he said. “Now that it’s become cost effective to do large utility photovoltaic projects, farmland or ranchland is often the place that it makes sense to do it.”

Dianne Anderson covers education, health, and city government stories with an eye on legislative impacts to diverse communities. She has received awards from the American Cancer Society – Inland Empire, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Over the years, she has reported for the Long Beach Leader and the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and been a contributor to the Pasadena Weekly.