According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the past decade is the first in more than fifty years that has actually witnessed a net gain in the number of reported farmers. Since 2002, almost 300,000 farms have begun operation, representing about 13 percent of all farms nation-wide. The majority of these new farms share several characteristics—smaller acreage, more diversified, operated by younger farmers and targeting local markets.
Many of these new farms confront a common challenge—degraded land and eroded topsoil. In rural areas, many farms have a history of invasive plowing, a lack of off-season cover-crops and compaction from heavy equipment that lead to poor soil conditions. In urban areas, land has frequently been stripped of topsoil, is heavily compacted, and contains old foundation stones and other urban debris.
Every new farm has to have a strategy for restoring topsoil, which provides the natural capital necessary to acheive a viable farm enterprise. For example in 2001, the 70-acre George Jones Farm and Nature Preserve in Oberlin began to transition from corn and soybean production to a more diversified farm that combined habitat restoration with the provision of food for local markets.
The soil at the farm faced significant compaction resulting from the loss of soil organic matter, a lack of worms and other soil micro-organisms, and historic use of heavy equipment. During the first couple of years of production, the young farmers joked that they would be better off starting a pottery business utilizing the heavy clay soils. As a result, production yields were severely limited during the first few years of operation.
Over time, the farm employed a wide-range of strategies to improve topsoil, eventually leading to a viable farm operation that supplies food to the college dining halls and a number of other local markets. The strategies included incorporation of municipal leaf mulch, cover-cropping, rotation of chickens and other livestock, and use of vermicompost—food waste processed by worms.
At present the Oberlin community is engaged in a broader, community-wide initiative to build on this example by converting urban wastes generated by the college, residents and local businesses into productive inputs for local agriculture.
As a part of the Oberlin Project, an effort to transition away from fossil energy dependency, the community is currently considering a mix of techniques and strategies aimed at solidifying the links between organic waste and the productivity of local farms. Options that could be considered by any community of any size, include:
• Commercial/Municipal Scale Composting—Large-scale composting systems involve a centralized facility that accepts large volumes of food waste and processes it into compost that can be sold or, in some cases, donated to area farms. These systems can provide employment opportunities, but can also be capital intensive and costly to establish and maintain.
• Vermicomposting—Vermicomposting feeds food and organic waste to worms who produce worm castings- nutrient rich compost. Vermicompost systems can cover a variety of scales, from restaurant basements to greenhouses or open fields on a farm. They can be managed at a commercial-scale or maintained by an individual farmer or business owner.
• On-Farm Composting Options—Dairy or livestock farms can work in partnership with municipalities or landscape companies to mix wood mulch or leaves with manure generated by their operations to produce compost that can be used to fertilize fields or support vegetable or grain production on other parts of the farm.
• Waste-to-Energy—Bio-digesters facilitate anaerobic composting (composting without oxygen), which releases methane as a by-product. The methane can be burned directly to produce fuel for cooking or heat for a greenhouse. Methane can also be stored and run through a generator to produce electricity.
Bio-digesters can include large-scale systems which can process large amounts of waste or can be scaled at the home or individual farm scale.
This year, the Oberlin community will be assessing these different options with the goal of creating a viable community composting system that utilizes waste to spur the growth of the community’s local food economy.
Even though it’s a small town, Oberlin spends more than $17 million per year on food. Present local food efforts between the college, student coops and local businesses circulate more than $1 million in the local economy.
Finding a way to more effectively collect, distribute and process the abundant organic wastes of this small town can go a long way in improving economic opportunities in the local food system.
Think about the potential of similarly engaging larger cities with urban farmers or rural farms in the surrounding countryside.
Follow Oberlin’s community process and learn more about options for your own community, by visiting www.neofoodweb.org.
My first foray into local food systems work occurred about 20 years ago when I was a student at Oberlin College enrolled in an introductory environmental studies course. The professor split the class into several groups, each of which had to examine a daily activity of campus life, trace out the extended environmental impacts and then develop a sustainable alternative. Our group focused on the college dining systems. Excited about our class mandate, our group delved into one of the dining cooperatives on campus and decided to trace the environmental impacts of one meal. We wanted to map out where the ingredients from one meal came from and how the production and distribution of those ingredients impacted the environment. We quickly realized how difficult this assignment actually was. We could trace most of our ingredients to a distributor, but could find no information about who actually produced it or where it actually came from.
Overwhelmed by the complexity of tracing just one meal, we decided to focus on one food item that was consumed regularly and popular with just about everyone—apples. We determined that the coops were getting most of their apples from New Zealand in a box that was labeled “jet fresh.” We quickly honed in on the ecological impacts of consuming apples that were flown half way across the world to our co-op. Perhaps even more surprising, within a stones throw of the Oberlin campus, there was an abundance of multi-generational apple orchards dotting the old sandy beach ridges of Lake Erie’s ancestral lakes. We wondered why it was easier for apples to be brought in on jets than to be delivered from farms just down the road. It revealed to us just how globalized our food system had become and the increasing difficulty that farmers had accessing markets down the streets from their farms.
Thus, Oberlin’s local food initiative was born. After the class, a group of students continued to work through the co-ops to shift our purchasing to these local family orchards. Not only did the apples taste better, but we began building relationships with the farm families that produced these apples. My college experience was greatly enhanced by connecting with these local farms and realizing that a simple shift in purchasing allowed us to keep our dollars in the local economy while reducing the carbon being emitted to transport it from the other side of the planet. We were pleased that our efforts that first year directed about $10,000 of purchasing to these local farmers.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but our initiative was an act of social entrepreneurship. Many of the pieces needed for a sustainable local food economy already existed within our community. We just had to take some extra time to make those connections, work out logistics, and, over time, find other food ingredients that we could substitute in a similar manner.
Fast forward to today. Oberlin College spends almost a million dollars between the student cooperatives and college dining services. This same story has been repeated in communities throughout Northeast Ohio and the U.S.
A theme common to all of these local food initiatives is the extent to which they leverage already existing assets within communities and connect them in new and innovative ways.
Consider the growth of local farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture programs. Most of these efforts connect urban neighborhoods with farmers in the surrounding rural areas. The neighborhoods create the spaces and networks with farmers and keep the food dollars circulating in the local food economy.
Many Great Lakes cities, including Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo are utilizing the abundance of vacant lots to create food access in communities that have lost grocery stores and lack outlets for healthy foods. The vacant lots flip from community liabilities attracting litter and abandoned cars to thriving assets that process food waste into topsoil, feed people, connect communities and provide new entrepreneurial opportunities for everyone from youth to retirees.
Many communities contain empty buildings and abandoned commercial storefronts. These spaces are being converted into retail local food cooperatives, aggregation points for local food distribution or value-added processing kitchens.
Farms, both in cities and in the country, are increasingly utilized as ways to turn waste streams into productive assets, including utilization of waste vegetable oil to run farm equipment or delivery trucks, composting of food and other farm wastes to create topsoil, and conversion of manure into energy through bio-digestion.
Farms are increasingly being looked at as part of a regional effort to reduce carbon emissions. A well-organized and efficient local food system requires much less energy to transport and store food items, and soil can become an effective place to sequester carbon. In fact, sequestering carbon in agricultural soils not only reduces the carbon load in the atmosphere, but it increases soil fertility, tilth, and water storage and retention.
We live in a volatile time. We see the emerging results of an increasingly chaotic climate, from simultaneous record flooding and record drought to record outbreaks of extreme weather events. People are finding themselves in increasingly precarious economic situations, losing homes, businesses, savings and lacking the capital to initiate new ventures.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has begun to shift the national conversation, as people increasingly feel victimized by economic and political forces remote from their immediate control.
The growth of local food economies throughout the nation reveals one counter-balance to this trend where communities take stock of their own assets, from empty buildings and land to new relationships between rural and urban communities, and begin to grow a new economy rooted in social equity and the stewardship of the land. The Occupy Wall Street initiative is about many things to many people. Fundamentally, it is about how we can begin to wrestle control back over our own economic destinies in ways that do not liquidate our communities' soils and natural systems upon which we depend.
While the Occupy Wall Street movement has shifted the national conversation in some important ways, the real work ahead involves large-scale reinvestment in our own communities and regions. Can we begin to create models for local stock markets or community investment portfolios that leverage all forms of local capital, including money, time or under-utilized assets? Can we look to these mechanisms to begin to generate the local wealth and value needed to create truly regenerative economic systems that nurture instead of exploit life?
Just as my experience in Oberlin revealed, we have more power than we think. We just need to take a close look at what’s around us and begin with the assets that already exist within our own communities. Many communities are nurturing these assets and creating new connections and networks within and between communities. Through this work, an economy rooted in community and healthy ecosystems is beginning to emerge.
Through net metering programs, homeowners who have installed solar energy systems can get utility credits for any electricity their panels generate during the day that isn't used to power home systems. These credits can be "cashed in" to offset the cost of any grid electricity used at night.
Where net metering is available, solar panels have a shorter payback period and yield a higher return on investment. Without this benefit, you only save on power bills when using solar energy directly, and surplus generation is lost unless you store it in a solar battery. However, net metering gives you the option of selling any excess electricity that is not consumed within your home.
Generally, you will see more home solar systems in places with favorable net metering laws. With this benefit, going solar becomes an attractive investment even for properties with minimal daytime consumption. Homeowners can turn their roofs into miniature power plants during the day, and that generation is subtracted from their nighttime consumption.
What Is Net Metering?
Net metering is a billing arrangement in which surplus energy production from solar panels is tracked by your electricity provider and subtracted from your monthly utility bill. When your solar power system produces more kilowatt-hours of electricity than your home is consuming, the excess generation is fed back into the grid.
For homeowners with solar panels, the benefits of net metering include higher monthly savings and a shorter payback period. Utility companies also benefit, since the excess solar electricity can be supplied to other buildings on the same electric grid.
If a power grid relies on fossil fuels, net metering also increases the environmental benefits of solar power. Even if a building does not have an adequate area for rooftop solar panels, it can reduce its emissions by using the surplus clean energy from other properties.
How Net Metering Works
There are two general ways net metering programs work:
- The surplus energy produced by your solar panels is measured by your utility company, and a credit is posted to your account that can be applied to future power bills.
- The surplus energy produced by your solar panels is measured by your home's electricity meter. Modern power meters can measure electricity flow in both directions, so they tick up when you pull from the grid at night and count down when your solar panels are producing an excess amount of electricity.
In either scenario, at the end of the billing period, you will only pay for your net consumption — the difference between total consumption and generation. This is where the term "net metering" comes from.
How Does Net Metering Affect Your Utility Bill?
Net metering makes solar power systems more valuable for homeowners, as you can "sell" any extra energy production to your utility company. However, it's important to understand how charges and credits are managed:
- You can earn credits for your surplus electricity, but utility companies will not cut you a check for the power you provide. Instead, they will subtract the credits from your power bills.
- If your net metering credit during the billing period is higher than your consumption, the difference is rolled over to the next month.
- Some power companies will roll over your credit indefinitely, but many have a yearly expiration date that resets your credit balance.
With all of this in mind, it is possible to reduce your annual electricity cost to zero. You can accumulate credit with surplus generation during the sunny summer months, and use it during winter when solar generation decreases.
You will achieve the best results when your solar power system has just the right capacity to cover your annual home consumption. Oversizing your solar array is not recommended, as you will simply accumulate a large unused credit each year. In other words, you cannot overproduce and charge your power company each month.
Some power companies will let you pick the expiration date of your annual net metering credits. If you have this option, it's wise to set the date after winter has ended. This way, you can use all the renewable energy credits you accumulated during the summer.
Is Net Metering Available Near You?
Net metering offers a valuable incentive for homeowners to switch to solar power, but these types of programs are not available everywhere. Net metering laws can change depending on where you live.
In the U.S., there are mandatory net metering laws in 38 states and Washington, D.C. Most states without a mandate have power companies that voluntarily offer the benefit in their service areas. South Dakota and Tennessee are the only two states with no version of net metering or similar programs.
If net metering is available in your area, you will be credited for your surplus energy in one of two ways:
- Net metering at retail price: You get full credit for each kilowatt-hour sent to the grid. For example, if you're charged 16 cents per kWh consumed, you'll get a credit of 16 cents per kWh exported. This type of net metering is required by law in 29 states.
- Net metering at a reduced feed-in tariff: Surplus electricity sent to the grid is credited at a lower rate. For example, you may be charged 16 cents per kWh for consumption but paid 10 cents per kWh exported. Feed-in tariffs and other alternative programs are used in 17 of the states where retail-rate net metering is not mandatory.
Note: This is just a simplified example — the exact kWh retail price and solar feed-in tariff will depend on your electricity plan.
The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) is an excellent resource if you want to learn more about net metering and other solar power incentives in your state. You can also look for information about solar incentives by visiting the official websites of your state government and utility company.
Other Financial Incentives for Going Solar
Net metering policies are one of the most effective incentives for solar power. However, there are other financial incentives that can be combined with net metering to improve your ROI:
- The federal solar tax credit lets you claim 26% of your solar installation costs as a tax deduction. For example, if your solar installation had a cost of $10,000, you can claim $2,600 on your next tax declaration. This benefit is available everywhere in the U.S.
- State tax credits may also be available depending on where you live, and they can be claimed in addition to the federal incentive.
- Solar rebates are offered by some state governments and utility companies. These are upfront cash incentives subtracted directly from the cost of your solar PV system.
In addition to seeking out solar incentives available to you, you should compare quotes from multiple installers before signing a solar contract. This will ensure you're getting the best deal available and help you avoid overpriced offers and underpriced, low-quality installations. You can start getting quotes from top solar companies near you by filling out the 30-second form below.
Frequently Asked Questions: Solar Net Metering
Why is net metering bad?
When managed correctly, net metering is beneficial for electricity consumers and power companies. There have been cases in which power grids lack the capacity to handle large amounts of power coming from homes and businesses. However, this is an infrastructure issue, not a negative aspect of net metering itself.
In places with a high percentage of homes and businesses using solar panels, surplus generation on sunny days can saturate the grid. This can be managed by modernizing the grid to handle distributed solar power more effectively with load management and energy storage systems.
How does net metering work?
With net metering, any electricity your solar panels produce that isn't used to power your home is fed into your local power grid. Your utility company will pay you for this power production through credits that can be applied to your monthly energy bills.
Can you make money net metering?
You can reduce your power bills with net metering, using surplus solar generation to compensate for your consumption when you can't generate solar power at night and on cloudy days. However, most power companies will not pay you for surplus production once your power bill has dropped to $0. Normally, that credit will be rolled over, to be used in months where your solar panels are less productive.
On very rare occasions, you may be paid for the accumulated balance over a year. However, this benefit is offered by very few electric companies and is subject to limitations.