Farms & Ranches: Energy Efficiency

For a farm or ranch, you can use the following energy-efficient and renewable energy technologies to help lower your energy costs and to benefit the environment:

  • Anaerobic digesters

    Recover methane from animal manure to fuel combined heat and power (CHP) systems that produce electricity, heat, and hot water.

    Farms and ranches can use anaerobic digesters—also known as biodigesters—to recover methane (biogas) from animal manure for producing electricity, heat, and hot water. Anaerobic digesters not only reduce energy costs but also methane emissions, which contribute to global warming.

  • Energy-efficient lighting and daylighting

    Reduce electricity use indoors and outdoors.

    The quantity and quality of light around us determine how well we see, work, and play. Light affects our health, safety, morale, comfort, and productivity. In your home, you can save energy while still maintaining good light quantity and quality.


    Learn how to reduce artificial lighting energy use while maintaining its quality and quantity.


    Maximize the use of natural daylight in your home to further reduce the need for artificial lighting.

  • Geothermal direct use

    Tap into geothermal reservoirs, if available, to provide direct heat for buildings, greenhouses, fish farms, and food processing facilities.

    Geothermal reservoirs of low-to moderate-temperature water — 68°F to 302°F (20°C to 150°C) — provide direct heat for residential, industrial, and commercial uses. This resource is widespread in the United States, and is used to heat homes and offices, commercial greenhouses, fish farms, food processing facilities, gold mining operations, and a variety of other applications. In addition, spent fluids from geothermal electric plants can be subsequently used for direct use applications in so-called “cascaded” operation.

    Direct use of geothermal energy in homes and commercial operations is much less expensive than using traditional fuels. Savings can be as much as 80% over fossil fuels. Direct use is also very clean, producing only a small percentage (and in many cases none) of the air pollutants emitted by burning fossil fuels.

    The Direct-Use Resource

    Low-temperature geothermal resources exist throughout the western U.S., and there is tremendous potential for new direct-use applications. A survey of 10 western states identified more than 9,000 thermal wells and springs, more than 900 low- to moderate-temperature geothermal resource areas, and hundreds of direct-use sites.

    The survey also identified 271 collocated sites — cities within 5 miles (8 kilometers) of a resource hotter than 122 degrees F (50 degrees C) — that have excellent potential for near-term direct use. If these collocated resources were used only to heat buildings, the cities have the potential to displace 18 million barrels of oil per year!

    Photo of a crop dehydration plant.Crop dehydration plant in Nevada.

    Tapping the Resource

    Direct-use systems typically include three components:

    • A production facility — usually a well — to bring the hot water to the surface;
    • A mechanical system — piping, heat exchanger, controls — to deliver the heat to the space or process; and
    • A disposal system — injection well or storage pond — to receive the cooled geothermal fluid.

    Operations Using Heat Directly from the Earth

    District and Space Heating

    The primary uses of low-temperature geothermal resources are in district and space heating, greenhouses, and aquaculture facilities. A 1996 survey found that these applications were using nearly 5.8 billion megajoules of geothermal energy each year — the energy equivalent of nearly 1.6 million barrels of oil!

    In the U.S., more than 120 operations, with hundreds of individual systems at some sites, are using geothermal energy for district and space heating. District systems distribute hydrothermal water from one or more geothermal wells through a series of pipes to several individual houses and buildings, or blocks of buildings. Space heating uses one well per structure. In both types, the geothermal production well and distribution piping replace the fossil-fuel-burning heat source of the traditional heating system.

    Geothermal district heating systems can save consumers 30% to 50% of the cost of natural gas heating. The tremendous potential for district heating in the western U.S. was illustrated in a 1980s inventory which identified 1,277 geothermal sites within 5 miles of 373 cities in 8 states.

    Greenhouse and Aquaculture Facilities

    Photo of a fish farm.A fish farm in Colorado.

    Greenhouses and aquaculture (fish farming) are the two primary uses of geothermal energy in the agribusiness industry. Thirty-eight greenhouses, many covering several acres, are raising vegetables, flowers, houseplants, and tree seedlings in 8 western states. Twenty-eight aquaculture operations are active in 10 states.

    Most greenhouse operators estimate that using geothermal resources instead of traditional energy sources saves about 80% of fuel costs — about 5% to 8% of total operating costs. The relatively rural location of most geothermal resources also offers advantages, including clean air, few disease problems, clean water, a stable workforce, and, often, low taxes.

    Industrial and Commercial Uses

    Industrial applications include food dehydration, laundries, gold mining, milk pasteurizing, spas, and others. Dehydration, or the drying of vegetable and fruit products, is the most common industrial use of geothermal energy. The earliest commercial use of geothermal energy was for swimming pools and spas. In 1990, 218 resorts were using geothermal hot water.

  • Microhydropower systems

    Use flowing water to generate electricity.

    Microhydropower systems usually generate up to 100 kilowatts (kW) of electricity. Most of the hydropower systems used by homeowners and small business owners, including farmers and ranchers, would qualify as microhydropower systems. In fact, a 10-kilowatt microhydropower system generally can provide enough power for a large home, a small resort, or a hobby farm.

  • Small wind (turbine) electric systems

    Provide electricity for buildings and water pumping.

    Small wind electric systems are one of the most cost-effective home-based renewable energy systems. These systems are also nonpolluting.

    If a small wind electric system is right for you, it can do the following:

    • Lower your electricity bills by 50%–90%
    • Help you avoid the high costs of having utility power lines extended to a remote location
    • Help uninterruptible power supplies ride through extended utility outages.

    Small wind electric systems can also be used for a variety of other applications, including water pumping on farms and ranches.

  • Solar technologies

    Generate heat and electricity for a variety of applications.

    Solar energy can be used on farms and ranches to meet and/or supplement many energy requirements.

    Space and Water Heating

    Livestock and dairy operations often have substantial air and water heating requirements. Modern pig and poultry farms raise animals in enclosed buildings, where it is necessary to carefully control temperature and air quality to maximize the health and growth of the animals. These facilities need to replace the indoor air regularly to remove moisture, toxic gases, odors, and dust. Heating this air, when necessary, requires large amounts of energy. With proper planning and design, solar air/space heaters can be incorporated into farm buildings to preheat incoming fresh air. These systems can also induce or increase natural ventilation levels during summer months.

    Solar water heating systems can provide low to medium temperature hot water for pen cleaning. Commercial dairy farms use large amounts of energy to heat water to clean equipment, as well as to warm and stimulate cows’ udders. Heating water and cooling milk can account for up to 40% of the energy used on a dairy farm. Solar water heating systems may be used to supply all or part of these hot water requirements.

    Greenhouse Heating

    Farms also can use solar energy to heat greenhouses. Commercial greenhouses typically rely on the sun to supply their lighting needs. They usually aren’t designed to use the sun for heating. They rely on gas or oil heaters to maintain the temperatures necessary to grow plants in the colder months. Solar greenhouses, however, are designed to use solar energy for both heating and lighting. A solar greenhouse uses thermal mass to collect and store solar heat energy. Its insulation retains this heat for use during the night and on cloudy days.

    A solar greenhouse also is oriented to maximize southern glazing exposure. Its northern side has little or no glazing, and is well insulated. To reduce heat loss, the glazing itself is also more efficient than single-pane glass. Various products range from double pane to “cellular” glazing. A solar greenhouse reduces the need for fossil fuels for heating. A gas or oil heater may serve as a back-up heater, or may increase carbon dioxide levels to induce higher plant growth.


    Solar electric, or photovoltaic (PV), systems can be used on farms and ranches to power electrical fencing, lighting, and water pumping.

    When properly sized and installed, PV water pumps are very reliable and require little maintenance. The size and cost of a PV water pumping system depends on the following:

    • Local solar resource
    • Pumping depth
    • Water demand
    • System purchase and installation costs.

    Most solar electric systems are typically more cost effective in remote locations where there are no existing power lines.

    Crop and Grain Drying

    Using the sun to dry crops and grain is one of the oldest and most widely used applications of solar energy. The simplest, and least expensive technique is to allow crops to dry naturally in the field, or to spread grain and fruit out in the sun after harvesting. The disadvantage of these methods is that the crops and grain can be damaged by birds, rodents, wind, rain, and contamination by windblown dust and dirt.

    More sophisticated solar dryers do the following:

    • Protect grain and fruit
    • Reduce losses
    • Dry faster and more uniformly
    • Produce a better quality product than open-air methods.

    The basic components of a solar dryer include an enclosure or shed, screened drying trays or racks, and a solar collector. In hot, arid climates the collector may not even be necessary. The southern side of the enclosure itself can be glazed to allow sunlight to dry the material. The collector can be as simple as a glazed box with a dark-colored interior to absorb the solar energy that heats air. The air heated in the solar collector moves, either by natural convection or forced by a fan, up through the material being dried. The size of the collector and rate of airflow depends on the following:

    • The amount of material being dried
    • The material’s moisture content
    • The humidity in the air
    • The average amount of solar radiation available during the drying season.

    There are relatively few large solar crop dryers in the United States. This is because the cost of the solar collector can be high. In addition, drying rates can’t be controlled as easily as with natural gas or propane-powered dryers. Using the collector at other times of the year, such as for heating farm buildings, may make a solar dryer more cost-effective. It is possible to make small, very low cost dryers out of simple materials. These systems can be useful for drying vegetables and fruit for home use.

  • Energy-efficient windows, doors and skylights

    Reduce electricity, heating, and cooling costs in buildings.

    Energy-efficient windows, doors, and skylights—also known as fenestration—can help lower a home’s heating, cooling, and lighting costs.

Many farmers and ranchers also take advantage of opportunities for large-scale wind energy development on their properties to increase or supplement their incomes.

In addition, there are farming opportunities for growing biomass feedstocks used in the development of biofuels, bioproducts, and biopower.

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