CHICAGO — Solar panels are cropping up alongside corn on Timothy Ridgely's Illinois farm. Irrigation equipment powered by the sun is pumping away on Daniel Chin's third-generation Oregon potato farm. And manure is being converted to electricity on an Ohio hog farm.
Across rural America, thousands of farms and small businesses are turning to renewable energy to cut costs and boost their often uncertain bottom lines, increasingly with the help of a decade-old federal program that aimed to hasten change in a part of the economy that had been slow to embrace it — yet where the electric bill can mean the difference between hiring a worker or laying one off.
Some were skeptical.
"My wife thought I was crazy," said Ridgely, who at age 70 recently installed 90 solar panels on the 2,700-acre southeastern Illinois farm where he grows corn, soybeans and wheat and his son raises beef cattle. Last year, he said, he cut his $5,500-a-year electric bill by about 40 percent when he installed a batch of panels. After installing more panels with help from the Agriculture Department's Rural Energy for America Program, he figures he'll be 100 percent self-sufficient.
"It takes a lot of electricity to run the house and barns, and every little bit helps," said Ridgely, who also touts the environmental benefits of solar power.
But the program's growing popularity could be its undoing. Some conservative groups have taken aim at the program, which costs up to $300 million over five years, in the congressional debate over a new farm bill, saying the program unfairly undercuts coal and other traditional energy businesses.
"The last thing we need is the federal government injecting itself into the system," said Daniel Simmons, a representative of the American Energy Alliance. He says his organization doesn't oppose renewable energy, but believes the program amounts to a government subsidy.