A Brighter Future for Farming and Renewable Energy
By Gina Wynn
Climate change, globalization, and a generation of farmers nearing retirement age are just some of the trends that have driven many farms out of business in recent years. But the increasing use of agrivoltaics is at least one development that more and more farmers view as trending in their favor. The technology could light the way for a new era of renewable energy use, improved water conservation, and the creation of a more sustainable food system.
Agrivoltaics involves growing agricultural crops underneath photovoltaic solar installations. It’s a type of low-impact solar development, among others, that the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) has been studying over the past 10 years. Through its Innovative Site Preparation and Impact Reductions on the Environment (InSPIRE) project, NREL has been investigating the economic and ecological impact of dual land use practices, including pairing solar installations with agricultural crops, native vegetation growth, and pollinator habitats, according to nrel.gov.
A Model for Small Farms
One of about a dozen NREL agrivoltaic sites in the U.S., Jack’s Solar Garden in Boulder County, Colorado, has installed rows of 3,200 solar panels on a four-acre field. Around 40 types of plants, including tomatoes, garlic, lettuce, radishes, peppers, beets, and kale grow beneath the panels that are mounted on six- to eight-foot-high posts spaced far enough apart for a tractor to navigate between them.
Former Peace Corps volunteer and U.S. Agency for International Development Natural Resources Officer Byron Kominek owns the 24-acre family farm that had been producing alfalfa and hay for nearly fifty years. When these crops had stopped turning a profit, Kominek saw agrivoltaics as a means of supporting his family while helping the environment. He worked with NREL and researchers from Colorado State University (CSU) to build “a model for other small farms that want to keep their soils productive while taking advantage of the economic benefits that clean energy production can provide,” according to the Solar Power World article, “Largest agrivoltaic research project in U.S. advances renewable energy while empowering local farmers” by HansenRE.
Worth the Challenge
Switching to agrivoltaics wasn’t easy, however. CSU and NREL helped Kominek work with county regulators to change the designation of his land so that he would have approval to install the solar array. Then, to finance the $2 million panels, Kominek had to put his farm and the array up for collateral. But so far, his investment has been paying off, according to the npr.org article “This Colorado ‘solar garden’ is literally a farm under solar panels.”
Kominek and the researchers found that many of the plants under the panels were thriving because of the intermittent shade the structures provided. That shade also helped reduce evaporation of the irrigation water. The water that did evaporate helped cool the baking solar panels and made them work more efficiently.
Because other agrivoltaic farms have recorded the same reduction of water use, western states that have been battling drought have become particularly interested in agrivoltaics. A University of Arizona study showed that some crops grown beneath solar panels needed 50 percent less water. Using less water benefits the environment and also cuts irrigation expenses.
A Cleaner, Greener Energy Source
As for economics, Kominek sells 1.2 megawatts of power back to the local grid, enough to power 300 homes for a year. The ability to generate and sell power provides farmers like Kominek a stable, additional source of income in an unpredictable agriculture industry. In addition, by using solar power to create energy rather than fossil fuels, Kominek is contributing to meeting the country’s renewable energy targets.
Now with close to two billion dollars allocated for renewable power through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, the U.S. is aiming to expand renewable energy use, including solar. A recent Oregon State University (OSU) study found that farms could generate 20 percent of U.S. electricity if 1 percent or 13,000 square miles of agricultural land (an area about the size of Maryland) were converted to agrivoltaics, according to
Also, non-agricultural land for solar development is becoming scarce. By 2030, utility-scale solar could cover almost 2 million acres of land in the U.S., according to NREL.
The advantages of agrivoltaics are clear to researchers. In addition to providing a practical alternative to monopolizing land solely for energy creation or food production, it offers a ray of hope for small to mid-sized farms looking to grow profits.
Gina Wynn is a Thermo Fisher Scientific staff writer.