BILLINGS – Farms have always been hotbeds of invention, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is hoping that a needed spark for renewable energy development will come from agriculture.

“With all the great folks who live in rural America, we truly think we’re going to see some things that no one even thought of before,” said Lillian Salerno, USDA deputy undersecretary.

In Billings to kick off a three-day conference on energy, agriculture and forestry, Salerno said there are new programs, underutilized in Montana, to help farms and rural communities develop renewable energy. Namely, the new Rural Energy for America Program, or REAP.

REAP was a program included in the 2014 farm bill that Montana lawmakers supported to make renewable energy more affordable in rural areas. The USDA set aside $280 million for government-backed renewable energy loans this year. Montana has yet to participate, possibly because banks may be unfamiliar with the government-backed loan program or are reluctant after years of uncertainty in federal government support of renewable energy programs.

The USDA introduced Montana farmers to REAP at the Harvesting Clean Energy Conference at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center.

The farm bill was a game-changer for rural renewables, Salerno said, because it assured that REAP and other incentives would be around for five years.

Renewable energy can be a hard sell in farm country without incentives. Farmers like Laurie and Roger Lohrer, of Lewistown, wouldn’t have been able to convert to solar energy four years ago if it wasn’t for a one-third tax credit on their solar conversion.

“If your system cost $90K then $30K came come off your tax bill,” Laurie Lohrer said.

Solar wasn’t cheap for the Lohrers. They skipped vacations and new vehicle purchases for a few years to come up with the money. Then, Roger Lohrer built a new steel barn in 2011. He positioned it “solar south,” meaning the south-facing side of the barn was at the perfect angle for solar panels.

The plan worked better than expected. The Lohrers “net-meter,” meaning they put excess power back onto the electric grid, Laurie Lohrer said. They’ve become the kind of advocates Salerno is looking for.

The cost of renewable energy, particularly solar, has become more affordable in the past few years, Salerno said, making renewables possible for more people.

The Central Montana Resource Council will hold a three-hour meeting Oct. 15 in Lewistown at the Community Center to discuss rural solar energy. The program starts at 4 p.m. 

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