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Farmers Look At Solar Panels As A Hedge Against Crop Prices And Trade Uncertainty

Solar panels are showing up more often on farms.
Solar panels are showing up more often on farms.

Low crop prices and an ongoing trade war limiting exports are adding to the financial struggles of farming. 

Across the nation, and in Missouri, an increasing number of farmers are looking to solar energy as a way to shore up the bottom line.

“It’s purely an economic decision for farmers,” said Andy Popp, manager of energy efficiency with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. 

“They want to utilize a piece of property that is underutilized or looking for an income-upon-retirement kind of thing for their farm and considering installing solar panels,” Popp said.

The U.S. Department of Energy reports the number of farm acres dedicated to solar power grew nearly five times over in five years, going from 53,000 acres in 2013 to more than 250,000 in 2018. In Missouri, the Rural Energy for America Program, or REAP, has seen an increase in applications for grants to install solar panels.

“For fiscal year '19, we received just under 100 applications in the REAP program for grant requests. The prior two or three years, I’d say we had anywhere from 50 to 60 applications,” said Nathan Tutt, with the USDA office in Missouri.

The trend will likely continue, he said, as the cost to install solar panels has dropped significantly.

“Four or five years ago, it cost $4 or $5 per kilowatt hour of production to install solar panels,” Tutt said. “Now you can see prices coming in at $2 a kilowatt.”

Tutt said most farmers are using solar panels to power their homes and farms and are not yet selling power back to utility companies. But that could change if crop prices stay low and energy costs and incentives to go green increase.

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Copyright 2019 St. Louis Public Radio

Jonathan Ahl reports from the Rolla Bureau for St. Louis Public Radio. His duties also include covering central and southern Missouri for Harvest Public Media. Before coming to St. Louis Public Radio in November of 2018, Jonathan was the General Manager for Tri States Public Radio in Macomb, Illinois. He previously was the News Director at Iowa Public Radio and before that at WCBU in Peoria, Illinois. Jonathan has also held reporting positions in central Illinois for public radio stations. Jonathan is originally from the Chicago area. He has a B.A. in Music Theory and Composition from Western Illinois University and an M.A. in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield. He is an avid long distance runner, semi-professional saxophonist and die-hard Chicago Cubs fan.