How Renewable Energy Helps Ranchers Survive in Uncertain Times

By Peter Brown, GVLT Stewardship Director

On a recent trip to the Musselshell Breaks Country in Eastern Montana, it was striking to observe and hear old windmills still creaking away at remote livestock watering tanks. Many believe that the Aermotor 702 was the “windmill that helped settle the West.” This ubiquitous and finicky predecessor is rudimentary in contrast to the ultra-modern and sleek looking wind generators and portable generators located near Judith Gap, MT. Both of these models have one thing in common; they have helped rural ranchers and communities capture the incessant and cursed wind and turn it into a source of power.

While it is downright amazing (and scenic if you like rural open space landscapes) to observe a relic Aermotor crank and pump away at a remote well, it is telling to see that some ranchers have replaced these remote sites with small solar photovoltaic arrays that capture a very different natural resource (the sun) and turn it into water for livestock. Ranchers and farmers have long been forced to innovate to survive; which is a result of constantly responding to the plethora of challenges from weather to weeds to crop prices; while simultaneously staying healthy working non-stop 14-18 hour days.

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A simple tool like a windmill or solar array can save time, money, and create reassurances whether it is windy or blistering hot with no end to the sun. Recent sales trends have shown that many ranchers, farmers, and rural people across the nation, are turning to renewable energy technologies, solar in particular, as less expensive, more reliable and a greener way to provide power as the oil, natural gas, and coal industries have waned and electricity prices have spiked. As interest in alternative power sources increases, investing in solar power infrastructure has increased by 50% over the last six years, which makes it a lucrative investment when compared to running power to a remote livestock tank miles from the nearest distribution line.

GVLT is glad to see a creaking windmill or an off the grid solar array serving the energy needs of farmers and ranchers on our conservation easement properties. Not only does this make their operation more sustainable in uncertain times, it also helps to protect scenic views across the expansive Montana landscape by eliminating the needs for electricity distribution lines. Hurray for “Local” power in a month when we have historically experienced a lot of wind building up to Election Day!