GreenTech: Solar For Food

It has finally happened… someone has proven that bumper crops and electricity generation through growing crops under solar panels at scale is possible. This is called agrivoltaics, which is when land is used for both agriculture and solar photovoltaic energy generation. You may also hear it called dual use solar, low impact solar, or agrisolar. It’s a way of viewing the two as complimentary to one another.

The idea is that agrivoltaic systems help farms with income, through diversification, as well as provide energy resilience and reduce a farm’s carbon footprint. Since agriculture has a bit of a reputation for being carbon-intensive, that last one is important. The farm that has proved this possible is Jack’s Solar Garden, located in Boulder, Colorado.

The Story

Jack’s Solar Garden is a 24-acre farm named after its original owner, the grandfather of Byron Kominek. Byron is former Peace Corps and USAID, and thanks to his willingness to try something that no one else was, we now have data for days on agrivoltaics. When duty called, and Byron needed to take over the family farm, he rose to the occasion. Unfortunately, upon doing so, he learned the farm was losing money.

Rather than being discouraged, Byron made a plan, and took a leap of faith. Byron decided to solve two problems at once, a move which cemented him as an innovative solar farmer. He paired up with the city of Boulder to help them meet their goal of being 100% renewable at some point by utilizing his farm and agrivoltaics. He had an expert solar-panel firm, Namaste Solar, erect 3,200 specially designed solar panels high over his crops.

Jack’s now generates enough electricity to power 300 private homes, and has 50 energy clients, including the farm’s city and county. Underneath soaring solar panels like the ones that Jack’s had installed, kale, peppers, turnips, tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, and beets can grow happily… with the panels above kept cool by evaporation, which acts to increase their energy generation by 2%. The crops themselves… 100% to 300% more productive.

Shade from the panels reduces irrigation-water use by 15%, which is impressive. But one of the most exciting numbers is in the reduction of overall water usage… which is something that’s a big deal to us humans right now. With agrivoltaics, water consumption is reduced by 157%. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the U.S. could meet renewable energy goals if just 1 million acres of farmland was covered in solar panels.

Farm Power

Given these figures, we’re excited to see what could happen with solar for farms… and we’re not the only ones. Sunzaun, launched by ground-mount solar installer Sunstall, makes vertical solar systems specifically for farms and agricultural settings. While Sunzaun has agrivoltaics in mind with their systems, they also assert the system’s possibilities as city infrastructure, such as next to railroads, along highways, and as fencing for homes or public spaces, as well.

The California company has systems in operation, so their work can be observed in the wild. At a winery in Somerset, California, called the Somerset Gourmet Farm, for instance. The winery features 43 vertical bifacial modules, totaling 23 kW of power, connected to a microinverter and two batteries. The system follows hilly vineyard for over 200 feet, and supplies the farm with electricity, while simultaneously increasing the efficiency of land use.

There is growing interest in agrivoltaics, and there’s plenty of research to prove it. The U.S. Department of Energy has their InSPIRE program, which is managed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to support solar development and agriculture. Through this, 22 projects sites across the U.S. bring together researchers, farmers, and industry partners. Both The University of Massachusetts Amherst and Cornell University are researching in the space.

Respectively, the universities are studying the effects of co-locating solar energy panels and agriculture operations, and the benefits of pollinator-friendly plantings on solar farms. We could continue… Rutgers University, the University of Vermont… you get the picture. We’re seeking answers, like how will livestock handle solar, and how agrivoltaics could reshape business. We’re already planning for a future where this is a part of farming. Come back next week, we’ll keep bringing you the news on this and other developments in the green tech space.