How renewable energy can help save America’s struggling farms

July 28, 2021

It’s no secret that farms across the U.S. are struggling, made worse by volatile energy and commodity prices, trade tensions with China, and economic losses from the pandemic. The costs of farm inputs—from energy and labor to animal feed—are expected to skyrocket. Meanwhile, farm incomes continue to decline, and bankruptcies are rising (up 20 percent in 2019 to an eight-year high). Small farms, which represent half of the nation’s farmland and 90 percent of farms, are especially hard hit, even though they are critical for the health of both rural economies and local ecosystems.

Farmers are also getting a bad rap on the climate front. Agriculture accounted for 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, with the bulk coming from livestock (both from methane that animals like cows and sheep release during digestion, as well as from manure) and emissions from soils. Meanwhile, climate change is making agriculture more unpredictable, with farmers facing water shortages and extreme weather events like droughts and floods. In light of all this, we need to step up efforts to reduce agricultural emissions and to empower farmers through clean energy solutions.

Enter renewables

Fortunately, over the past decade, more and more farmers have embraced the opportunities of clean energy. Farmers are opting to lease a portion of their land to a wind or solar company in exchange for a monthly payment. The wide-open spaces on farms are ideal for “planting” wind turbines or a solar array (a practice known as agrivoltaics) alongside a crop or livestock. Evidence shows that such dual-use clean energy solutions can be adopted by most farms—regardless of their size, type, or location—and add tremendous value while posing little risk to farmland or surrounding ecosystems.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the benefits:

A new income stream

For struggling farm families, the greatest boon is financial. “It’s not so much about green energy at all, but economics,” said Kerri Johannsen with the Iowa Environmental Council, who notes that wind power is “just another crop, another opportunity to capture resources.” Put simply, leasing ag land for wind or solar makes economic and operational sense and provides an important supplement to farm incomes.

According to one analysis, the clean energy “side gig” represents 6 percent of a farm’s gross cash income in Pennsylvania and Oklahoma, sometimes exceeding government payments. Landowners who either host wind turbines on their fields or who are near enough to turbines to receive a “good neighbor” payment can earn $3,000 to $7,000 yearly. Research shows farmers who own and farm land with turbines are more likely to have a plan in place to pass their farm on to their children and to invest in the long term, since the turbine income makes farming seem less risky.

For struggling farm families, the greatest boon is financial. “It’s not so much about green energy at all, but economics.”

In a recent survey of 400 farmers, nearly a third said they had been in discussions with solar companies about leasing their land (usually for a 30-40 year period), and 3 percent already had contracts. Farmers are adopting solar leases at more than double the rate of contracts aimed at using their land for carbon sequestration, since farmers can earn $1,000 per acre or more with solar. In the case of wind installations, lease payments to farms with turbines total $250 million annually nationwide. “[T]he absence of financial stress has been a real game-changer for me…. The turbines make up for the (crop) export issues we’ve been facing,” observed one Kansas farmer.

Improved productivity

The benefits aren’t just economic. Research has shown that installing clean energy on farms can also help with crop and livestock productivity. “[S]ome food and vegetable crops…have been shown to produce higher yields when grown under the shade of PV panels,” said Peter Perrault with Enel North America. For example, the presence of solar panels in fields has led to: improved vegetation growth and pollinator presence at a solar farm in Minnesota; an increase in celery yields and an increase in land use efficiency for potatoes at a family farm; and an overall increase in land use efficiency of 60-84 percent over two years. A study on a sheep farm found that installing solar panels resulted in about the same level of animal production as not having panels, while providing numerous other benefits. 

Water and soil conservation

By providing a barrier from the wind and sun, solar panels can also help increase water retention in the soil, reducing the need for irrigation by up to 20 percent. In one analysis, the water-saving “microclimate” created under the panels resulted in a 90 percent increase in the grasses that sheep and cows graze on. Another study found that while the shading led to fewer forage plants produced, those that did grow had a much higher nutritional content, which promotes quicker livestock growth. Meanwhile, a German study found that solar structures protect against damage from hail, frost, and drought, thus eliminating the need to protect crops with foils and other materials.

In one analysis, the water-saving “microclimate” created under the panels resulted in a 90 percent increase in the grasses that sheep and cows graze on.

Farmers also have observed that sheep prefer the shade under solar arrays and that cattle line up in the tall shadows cast by wind towers (shuffling slowly in a formation known as a “bovine sundial“). This reduces the need to build other shade structures, and the animals also require significantly less water.

The bigger picture

From a clean energy perspective, using ag lands for wind and solar is a better proposition than using them to support other forms of renewable energy like biofuels. Currently, around a quarter of the corn planted in the U.S. is used to produce ethanol fuel for transportation. But research shows that if the same acreage were used for solar generation instead, this could yield as much as 1.8 to 2.5 terawatts of electricity. To put this in perspective, according to some estimates, the U.S. could reach 100 percent clean electricity with around 1.1 terawatts of wind and solar combined.

Even better would be to incentivize farmers to combine wind or solar projects with “farms” of native grasses, rather than the extensive cornfields currently used to produce biofuel. This would provide a much-needed opportunity to restore native ecosystems and reduce soil erosion while also addressing climate change. Research indicates that solar projects that support native grasses can sequester up to 65 percent more carbon than cropland alone. Bringing back native grasslands would also boost populations of local pollinators as well as protect soils from erosion and excess water runoff.

Overall, combining clean energy and agriculture is a no brainer for many farmers. Not only does it have the potential to improve the economics of farming, but it can boost crop and livestock productivity and help improve the land and soil itself. While clean energy alone won’t revitalize rural communities, it can be a key part of the solution. And importantly, the ag + clean energy combo is both politically and socially palatable, finding support in a broad diversity of communities. It’s time to ramp up our investment in both our farmers and our clean energy future.


Behind the Wheel of Electric School Buses: Driving Green Instead of Yellow

July 27, 2021

Just Northeast of San Diego, California, Cajon Valley Union School District boasts an impressive track record for school sustainability. The home of the Braves already powers 26 of their school campuses with solar, introducing over 16,000 students to clean energy in the classroom. Now, three schools (and counting) have electric vehicle charging stations, all warehouse vehicles are being replaced with electric trucks, and the school bus fleet contains 5 electric school buses, with plans underway to triple their electric bus fleet. They even are part of their local utility’s pilot vehicle-to-grid (V2G) program, enabling bus batteries to bolster grid reliability by returning electricity to the grid during times of high energy demand.

We were lucky to connect with Juan Noriega, a school bus driver who was at the frontline of the district’s transition from diesel to electric school buses. His passion for electric buses is infectious, so much so that we’re considering getting our school bus driver’s license so we can experience it for ourselves. Here is that interview, edited for length and clarity. Enjoy!

Pictured: Juan Noriega, electric school bus driver and Transportation Operations Assistant for Cajon Valley Union School District


Generation180: What were your initial thoughts about electric school buses?

Juan Noriega: The personal vehicle that I drive is a Prius, so I had experience with efficient cars, but never with electric vehicles. I was excited, but very worried about how long the batteries would last. That was my main concern, because if the battery was to run out, I would be concerned about the wellbeing of the students. Otherwise, I didn’t foresee any problems.

Generation180: What adaptations did you have to make to drive electric?

Juan Noriega: The transition was not that difficult at all and not extreme, like I thought it would be. Once you’re actually driving, you don’t focus on the specifics of the bus. You just switch from considering mpg to kw/h. The electric buses are very well manufactured, drive smoothly, and perform well.

As long as you drive carefully, like you’re supposed to for the kids (i.e. you can’t speed, can’t stop or accelerate too quickly), you are maximizing the performance of the bus and that lends itself to maintaining the electric battery. Acceleration was great, stopping was the same, and going uphill is a bit different.

I really enjoy driving electric buses. It’s something different, something new. The kids that get to ride in them are the “select few” since only 5 buses in our fleet out of 40 are electric; so they feel different and special.

Generation180: Is there anything you missed about diesel buses after making the switch?

Juan Noriega: I don’t miss having to fill them up! It’s wonderful not having to visit the diesel pump every day and have to inhale those fumes. As long as you plug them in at the yard, you’re set. It’s super easy, plus mess-free and smell-free. 

So, I don’t miss anything really about diesel buses since electric buses handle everything as well, and more. While there are some routes we can’t use the electric buses on because they don’t have the range for it (we have 100 mile range buses), overall, they serve our needs. As long as we plan ahead, as the fleet operations team does, it’s not an issue.

Generation180: What do you like most about the buses: smooth to drive, acceleration, safety, noise?

Juan Noriega: Quietness. Definitely. With that said, we do have a small noise it makes on purpose for 0-15 mph so people know we’re there. It’s a fun jingle, so everyone jokes that the electric school buses are like an ice cream truck.

The noise factor makes a big difference. Diesel is just so loud, and starting up close to a neighborhood at 5:30 am with 40 buses turning on would negatively impact the community. Now we have fewer community concerns and complaints, as electric buses make no sound to start.

Plus, the AC works really well. 

Generation180: What did parents and students say – did they like them? 

Juan Noriega: The buses look different (yellow and blue, not yellow and black, for fire safety reasons), so everyone knows who rides on the electric buses. Kids these days are very used to screens, so since the dashboard is a screen, they easily relate to the control panel and often ask questions.  All of the kids are excited by them, whether they ride them or not. When dropping kids off, parents and students alike often remark “woah, it’s electric! I’m curious, can I look inside?” The community accepted and welcomed the buses, wanting to learn more about electric transportation.

I also drove a lot of students with learning disabilities, and a major benefit for the majority of students was the lack of noise from the diesel engine. Plus, in the long-term, it’s improving their health by cleaning up the air they breathe every day.

Generation180: Do you have any advice for bus drivers that might be wary about giving up a vehicle they are comfortable with for an electric model?

Juan Noriega: Take the plunge! It’s a very easy vehicle to drive. It is basically the same in terms of drivability, so you’ll slip right in. You have to be aware of what you’re doing and your basic principles are the same. You just have a different motor and you have a different range.

I work for dispatch now and plan the routes, so it’s not on the driver. We manage the routes and range of the buses, and we would not send them on long routes or field trips they can’t handle. Technology is improving, as are bus charge points. For now we have limitations, and we use fleet management to address them. 

It’s a matter of having an open mind and trying it, so get behind the electric wheel! 


Interested in bringing solar, electric school buses, or other clean energy technologies to your school? Explore our resources and answers to common questions at our Help Desk and get started!


Why the energy transition needs the arts

July 21, 2021

We sometimes assume that the more people learn about climate change, the more they’ll turn their concern into concrete action, like switching to an electric vehicle or putting solar panels on their house. But it’s not that simple. Just because we know something, or have a solid scientific understanding of it, doesn’t mean we’re going to do something about it.

In most cases, we first need to go through an inner shift—changing our mindset and/or our personal values—before we (individually or collectively) actually change our behavior. There’s another important way to help shift people’s thinking and spark change that is often overlooked: the arts.

It might sound cliché, but there’s a lot of truth to the saying, “change the culture, change the world.” The arts—from songs and TV shows to visual arts and storytelling—play a crucial role in shaping our consciousness, and artists have long been agents of social change (helping to spur everything from the end of Communism in Eastern Europe to the mainstreaming of LGBTQ culture). On the clean energy front, concepts like the “energy transition” can be abstract, technical, or downright un-inspiring. But as one author put it, the arts can be the “open sesame” to animated discussions and deep questioning, pushing us to engage our emotions and provoking curiosity or outrage.

The power of ideas

Through music, art, books, and other forms of cultural expression, we can introduce ideas, expand our imaginations, and change the broader narrative to support positive social change. As artist Favianna Rodriguez has observed, art is “where people can imagine what change looks and feels like.” Art also inspires action: the most popular artists have the ability to motivate masses of people through their fan bases. In the case of clean energy, engaging the arts and culture can normalize or celebrate actions like installing solar or driving an EV (think about all the Superbowl ads this year that aimed to do exactly that).

Art is “where people can imagine what change looks and feels like.”

Some argue that, for social change movements to be successful, they need to have a strong arts and culture component, or a “cultural strategy.” In other words, the only way we’re going to change politics is by changing the culture (often behind the scenes and over time). Journalist and music critic Jeff Chang has likened political change to a wave: the peak of the wave is the visible, high-profile event or policy win, but in order to reach this peak, many divergent (and often less visible) forces must come together beforehand, gradually building power. Artists and other agents of cultural change help create the conditions that lead to these peaks, shifting and framing public sentiment through a process Rodriguez describes as “rain readying the crops.”

Visions of a better future

Artists are powerful agents of change because they have the flexibility and imagination to push boundaries and give us a sense of what’s possible. They aren’t confined to the world as it is, to existing political frameworks and systems, but can point to the possibilities for a better future. “[W]ithout the inspiration and visions artists provide, we won’t be able to give birth to the life affirming and just civilization we aspire to,” notes the Bioneers website. Because artists work in the idea space (and not just the action space), they’re able to present more complex messages and to “deal with contradictions and gray areas.” Art enables us to imagine desired futures (such as a world running on clean energy) and opens up a positive way of seeing things. It helps us focus on “what we want” and how to get there.

Humor as strategy

Comedy can be a particularly effective means of bringing attention to issues in a non-threatening way. Author Srjda Popovic notes how the use of humor was key to engaging young people in the overthrow of Serbia’s dictatorship in the 1990s, as activists encouraged youth to participate in low-risk performance art that helped alleviate fear while providing a sense of comic relief.

Comedy can be a particularly effective means of bringing attention to issues in a non-threatening way.

In Japan, manga (a term that refers to all kinds of cartooning, comics, and animation) has been used widely to facilitate public discussion of topics from sexuality to climate change. Comics are a powerful medium because they can be a flexible and humorous way to communicate information and develop awareness and empathy. Research has shown that using comics as an educational tool results in two key experiences that can lead to inner transformation: 1) “Aha” moments (or sudden insights into connections between facts, phenomena, problems, and solutions) and 2) laughter, which is often a sign of emerging creativity and insights.

Moving forward

So what does all this mean for the clean energy movement? It means we need to pay closer attention to how art shapes politics, and to think about how to build up a cultural strategy alongside a political one. It means making clean energy come alive through humor and art. It means joining forces to “make waves of political change,” especially in light of the overall decline in support for the arts. It means giving artists the space, time, and resources they require to be creative. And it means hiring artists (and not just policy experts and organizers) to work for social change organizations. As Rodriguez notes, we need to “build the infrastructure and networks needed to help socially engaged artists thrive…while they’re young and excited to shape the world around them.”

Want to see some recent creative projects of ours? Check out these fun videos, this long-form comic, and this children’s book.


Checking in on the state of global climate action

July 14, 2021

Last month, the leaders of the world’s major industrialized nations got together, as they have every year since the early 1970s, to talk about matters of international importance. The pandemic was top of mind at the G7 summit, of course, but so was the climate crisis.

Just days before the summit, scientists had reported a new record for carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere—419 parts per million, the highest since accurate measurements began nearly 60 years ago.

The crisis is now impossible to ignore.

The G7, or Group of Seven, consists of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Together, their economies comprise nearly half the world’s gross domestic product, about 10 percent of the world’s population, and more than a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions. So, you know, they’re kind of influential when they get together. As the European Commission’s website puts it, “decisions taken at the G7 are not legally binding, but exert strong political influence.”

What went down last month

So, what legally non-binding decisions did the G7 make regarding climate? Here’s the topline summary:

  • Reach net zero emissions no later than 2050
  • Cut collective emissions in half by 2030
  • Increase and improve climate finance over the next few years
  • Conserve or protect at least 30 percent of each nation’s land and oceans by 2030

Depending on whom you ask, this was a pretty good outcome or it was resoundingly lame. The New York Times said the G7 had taken “aggressive climate action.” The Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute, which are both nonprofits working on climate change solutions, said the nations had “raised the bar” on climate action.

Others were disappointed and scornful. The summit’s steak barbecue, private jets, and air shows were not a good look for leaders claiming to care about greenhouse gas emissions. The director of Greenpeace called the meeting “very disappointing.” To climate activist Greta Thunberg, the leaders seemed “to be having a good time presenting their empty climate commitments and repeating old unfulfilled promises.” And in a roundup of utterly unimpressed reactions from climate action groups, one commented, “This G7 leaves the success of COP26 on a knife edge.”

This last comment gets to the heart of why the G7 matters. It sets the tone for the next round of international climate talks—the aforementioned COP26. (You could call it the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, but COP26 sounds much snappier, no?)

Patricia Espinosa, the head of the UNFCCC, summed it up this way in a speech shortly before the summit: “Nations are still far from the goals of the Paris Agreement and stabilizing global temperature rise at 1.5C by the end of the century….The decisions G7 nations make in the next few weeks will have a major impact on whether nations achieve success at COP26, whether they make a truly green recovery from COVID-19, and if they eventually reach their long-term climate goals under the Paris Agreement.”

“Nations are still far from the goals of the Paris Agreement and stabilizing global temperature rise at 1.5C by the end of the century.”

After four years of a climate leadership vacuum under the Trump administration, it’s understandable that any collective climate agreement between the U.S. and other leading nations would draw some applause. As the World Resources Institute and the Times noted, it was the first time the G7 had agreed together to cut their emissions by 2030 and to regularly update their strategies for doing so.

What did the G7 miss?

Fiddling while coal burns. The leaders agreed to stop financing “unabated international thermal coal power generation” by the end of this year. But they didn’t set a date to stop burning coal, period. This is a problem, given that global carbon emissions are set for their second-biggest increase in history, according to the International Energy Agency—driven by coal use. China is still building new coal plants at home and abroad. That’s not likely to change anytime soon while the G7 allows itself an extended runway to coast ahead with the dirtiest fuel.

Show me the money. BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin got straight to the point: “For the umpteenth time the rich club has failed to deliver on its promise to channel $100bn a year to poor nations coping with a heating climate.” That promise was made by developed countries in 2009, acknowledging that transforming our energy systems requires capital that some countries don’t have. It’s time to pay up.

Too much talk, too little action. In general, the big-sounding promises coming out of the G7 summit got the side-eye from environmental groups who noted we have heard a lot of this before. “This summit feels like a broken record of the same old promises,” said John Sauven of Greenpeace UK. “Without agreeing to end all new fossil fuel projects — something that must be delivered this year if we are to limit dangerous rises in global temperature — this plan falls very short.”

Next Steps

COP26 will take place in Glasgow, Scotland, from October 31 to November 12. While change on the international stage can be slow, the world needs concrete actions that feel real: financial commitments, fossil fuel expiration dates, and emissions trend lines that are moving in the right (downward) direction. While most of us won’t be involved in the big talks, the leaders involved are representing all of us. The more loudly we demand clear air and affordable energy for all, the harder it will be to substitute statements for meaningful, immediate steps.


Real talk from a commuter-turned-EV-lover

July 7, 2021

Electric car owners are among the top advocates for these low-maintenance, emission-free vehicles. This is one EV owner’s story.

Caitlin Newman taught herself how to fix her four-door hatchback and maintain it. Working on her car was satisfying because she saved money. But after a manufacturing defect requiring an excess amount of oil, expense, and time, “I knew I was going to have to get rid of it,” Newman said. 

Two years ago, the Bremerton, Washington resident turned to her local utility company’s online electric vehicle guide to research her next car purchase. She compared the operating costs of gas-fueled cars to hybrid and electric ones. “It was an easy choice” to go with a hybrid or electric car when she saw the calculated estimated savings. “The environmental concerns [of driving a gas-fueled car] were always there. The savings just tipped me over the edge.”

At first, Newman set her eyes on a hybrid. After she test drove the Chevy Volt at her local dealership, the car salesperson invited her to test drive the all-electric Chevy Bolt EV. Why not? she thought. “Somehow getting in it, seeing that it was real and that it felt like a normal car, not a spaceship, that it was an actual option, I was sold on electric.” Newman bought a used 2017 Chevy Bolt during a window with no state tax credits or cash incentives (currently only certain new models EVs are eligible for federal tax credits). “The dealership adjusted the price because they knew that,” Newman said. So she doesn’t feel like she missed out on savings.

“Somehow getting in it, seeing that it was real and that it felt like a normal car, not a spaceship, that it was an actual option, I was sold on electric.”

Charging at home

When she brought her car home, Newman plugged her Bolt’s charger into a standard 120-volt power outlet in her garage. It takes more than a day to fully charge on this “Level 1” charger. That slow charge was okay for Newman’s daily 60-minute round-trip commute to work. That is, until her home flooded. She and her partner stayed at Airbnbs for a month while home repairs were underway. During that time, they ran more errands and ate out more often. “Then the charging got really hard and stressful,” she said, because the area in which she lives lacks  fast charging stations (three stations are scheduled to open soon). “But we also had my car, which is a gas car,” said her partner, Max Hughey. “So we never would have been stuck anywhere. We’re lucky that we could have carpooled everywhere, if we had to.” 

This experience motivated them to install a “Level 2” charger at home. An electrician installed in their garage a 240-volt power outlet – the same type of outlet for electric stoves and clothes dryers. Some states and utility companies offer tax credits or cash incentives to cover or offset the cost of installing a Level 2 charger. “It’s just like having a gas station at home,” she said. “We charge overnight. Super simple.” A full charge takes four hours. But because Newman has short commutes to work, her car only needs to charge for 20-30 minutes a day. 

Level 2 charger installed in garage
The couple’s Level 2 charger installed in their home.

Every night Hughey asks Newman if she’s going to work from home or drive to work, “because I want to take her car,” Hughey said. “I love driving it… and I’ve never really enjoyed driving. It’s fast. It’s quiet. It feels fundamentally different than a combustion engine car.” They prefer to take their electric car on longer trips, if they can. With careful planning, road trips are possible. They cross-reference different apps to plan routes with access to charging stations. They also learned from experience to double-check that charging stations are indeed in service by calling their operators. 

“We charge overnight. Super simple.” A full charge takes four hours. But because Newman has short commutes to work, her car only needs to charge for 20-30 minutes a day. 

Driving long distances

The first year with their EV, Newman and Hughey drove from Bremerton, Washington to Newport, Oregon, stopping each way only twice to charge. They thought about driving to Eugene, Oregon but the city didn’t have fast-charging stations, or Level 3 chargers, with plugs that fit her car. Newman said her brain goes into scarcity mode when she sees only 40 to 50 miles remaining on her battery on long trips. She worries she has fewer miles than that. “But it’s accurate. The car knows what’s going on. So whenever we’ve gotten into situations like that where it’s getting low, it’s always worked out with a little bit of planning.”

Within the past two years alone, Newman and Hughey have seen more charging stations pop up in the Pacific Northwest. Many of them are owned by Electrify America, a network of charging stations that Volkswagen created to meet its 2016 emissions scam settlement agreement. Last year Newman and Hughey finally made it to Eugene, which now has a Level 3 charging station compatible with their car. This summer, they almost took their EV on a short trip to the Washington coast. One app indicated that rural Aberdeen, near their vacation spot, had new fast charging stations. Newman checked another app where she learned service wasn’t on yet. So they took Hughey’s car instead. “We could have made it work,” Newman said, “but it would have chained us to the place we were sleeping and we wanted to explore.” 

“Those little issues we have with the long distance trips, they’re getting better pretty quickly,” Hughey said. It’s no wonder. Electrify America expects to install approximately 800 total charging stations nationwide with about 3,500 chargers by December 2021. EVGo, another electric-vehicle fast charging network, already serves more than 65 metropolitan areas around the country, with over 800 fast charging stations. The company plans to triple in size over the next five years. And the Biden Administration recently proposed to invest $15 billion to build half a million charging stations all over the country.

“Those little issues we have with the long distance trips, they’re getting better pretty quickly,”

Hughey is determined to eventually replace his gas-fueled car with an electric one. “The maintenance book has three items listed and it’s just wild,” he said. That would be maintenance for tires, air filters and coolant. Much like the couple’s overall experience of EV ownership, that’s a compelling benefit they can get behind. Newman and Hughey are excited about the future of EVs. “I could see the technology getting to a point where you don’t even charge anymore,” Hughey said. “Who knows what it will be like.”