PAULDING COUNTY — For years, the McClure family contemplated installing solar panels.
For just the south barn full of hogs, they spent $17,269 on electricity bills in 2017. Energy is the biggest expense for their operation, said 58-year-old Terry McClure, a fifth-generation farmer.
A solar investment is a significant one.
“It has to pay its way,” he said.
As farmers across Ohio weigh the financial costs of offsetting their carbon footprint and increasing profits, researchers have painted a bleak picture of what will happen if greenhouse emissions are not reduced. Farmers say they will need financial incentives and more technological advances to eliminate their carbon footprint.
Agriculture is an emissions-intensive industry. Agriculture, along with forestry, accounted for 1% of U.S. production in gross value, but produced 10% of the country’s greenhouse gases in 2016, according to the latest figures posted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.
In many industries, energy is the leading source of emissions, including for heating, engine fuel and electricity. However, agriculture faces additional challenges because of emissions from livestock and the way crops are planted and grown.
Researchers have said that time is running out to slash carbon enough to avoid catastrophic damage. A recent United Nations report warns that 1 million species face extinction from a combination of causes, including rising temperatures.
Even if that doesn't happen, droughts and heat waves will worsen. Vulnerable populations such as the very young and elderly are expected to suffer health effects from increasing temperatures and declining air quality, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Many farmers say they want to be part of the solution, but they also say that making drastic changes in their operations would have to make financial sense. Any change will not happen overnight, they said.
"The zero-carbon footprint is hypothetical ... unless you have a huge leap forward with technology," McClure said. "That also says everything we've got huge investments in is suddenly unusable.”
Jerry Klopfenstein, 51, who is a third-generation farmer in Paulding County, was the first in his area to install solar panels at his farm. Others, including the McClures, soon followed. The county is among the leaders in the state in wind-turbine installations, which dot the landscape.
“I am not unique. I think there’s more people like me out there that are looking for more solutions and do the best job they can,” Klopfenstein said.
McClure decided with his now-35-year-old son, Ryan, to install the solar panels to provide power for their livestock operations. The farm keeps 8,800 hogs.
The McClures spent an estimated $180,000 to install a solar array adjacent to their south barn. It can tilt between 12- and 45-degree angles to catch the most sunlight.
A federal tax credit gives customers 30 percent back on their investment through this year. The amount drops to 26 percent in 2020, and then to 22 percent in 2021.
“Without [federal] tax incentives, we couldn’t make it work,” Terry McClure said.
So far, that investment is paying off. Energy policy, net electricity metering agreements and the rate structure could change the amount of benefits. In 2018, the McClures’ power bill for the same barn plummeted to $6,417 — a 63 percent drop from the previous year.
Even on a cloudy day in April, the panels produced a little energy (specifically, 14.7 kilowatts).
“It’s doing at least what was expected. Maybe more,” McClure said.
As of April 30, the monitor showed that the panels had offset 102 tons of carbon since they were installed.
Although McClure said the panels are paying off, he still wants to be connected to the electrical grid. If the panels were to malfunction, that backup power is necessary because most of the electricity is used to aerate the barns that house thousands of hogs, he said.