PORTLAND, Maine — A North Yarmouth greenhouse’s conversion to renewable energy sources won praise Tuesday from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which announced a new batch of $280 million in grants and loans for farms, ranches and rural businesses to make energy efficiency investments.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said during the conference call Tuesday that his agency is opening applications for $200 million in loans and about $80 million in grants through the Renewable Energy for America Program, which got a new batch of funding in the 2014 Farm Bill.
Of that national total, Maine has $163,000 available for grants of $20,000 and less and $1,089,000 available for grants over $20,000.
That program in 2012 gave a grant of about $49,000 to Cozy Acres Greenhouses in North Yarmouth, owned by Jeff and Marianne Marstaller, who also got $25,000 through the state-level Farms for Maine’s Future program to build a greenhouse that uses geothermal energy for heat and solar energy for power.
Jeff Marstaller was one of two agricultural operations featured in the department’s telephone news conference on the new funding announced Tuesday.
Marstaller said that the grants made the nearly $200,000 project possible, but that it’s “apples and oranges” to assess the savings for his business compared with his company’s seven other greenhouses that use propane for heat.
“I don’t know how to even boil down paybacks — all I end up saying is that I’m glad that we did it,” Marstaller said in a phone interview, noting the carbon-neutral greenhouse cost about as much as seven greenhouses using conventional heat and power. “Some day I know we’re going to sell, and we have something that very few people do.”
Marstaller said during the teleconference that he and his wife have not identified another greenhouse that’s heated without traditional fuel in the northern U.S.
Marstaller said he expects to pay off the costs of the solar and geothermal systems in about five years. When the system generates more power than it consumes, the excess power goes back into the grid and gives him a credit toward a future bill, as part of Central Maine Power’s net metering program.
Vilsack said Cozy Acres greenhouse and the energy efficiency investments Jennifer Womble and her husband made to their Arkansas market will serve as examples for the program that offers grants of up to $250,000 for energy efficiency upgrade projects and $500,000 for energy-producing projects.
The grants cannot exceed 25 percent of the cost of the total project, and loan guarantees through the program cannot be more than 75 percent of the project cost. The maximum loan amount is $25 million.
Vilsack said applications this year will be accepted year-round, rather than coming with a specific deadline. He said the change comes as the latest congressional farm bill ensures at least $50 million in annual funding for the program for the duration of the five-year law.
Vilsack said the grants and loans are open to farms, ranches and rural businesses seeking to install renewable energy projects of all types, including solar, wind, biomass and hydropower or looking to make energy efficiency improvements to their facilities.
The applications this year will be assessed on a rolling basis, Vilsack said, and he suggested contacting the USDA’s Maine state office for more information about applying.