The Responsible Solar Approach Part 4: Agrivoltaics

Fourth article in a series by Alyssa Edwards, Senior Vice President, Environmental Affairs and Government Relations:

Multi-use land initiatives are changing how solar integrates with farm communities.

 Your next sip of tequila could have started in the shade of a solar array.

 So could the wool in your sweater.

 That’s because agrivoltaics, the co-location of solar and agriculture, could make it possible.

 As I said in a previous article, solar farms can grow a lot more than electricity. By investing in ways to use land under and around the panels for agriculture, we can better integrate solar into rural communities and increase revenue sources for local farmers.

 According to the Energy Department’s Solar Energy Technology Office, Agrivoltaics is defined as agricultural production, such as crops, livestock grazing, and pollinator habitat that exist underneath solar panels and/or in between or around rows of solar panels.

It’s an emerging field. While exploratory research is currently evaluating fruit and vegetable crops, the most common and successful forms of agrivoltaics we see at solar projects right now are sheep grazing and bee keeping.

Did you know that sheep farming industry is a nearly $700M industry? There are four main products made from sheep: lamb, mutton, wool, and dairy. I’ve had the pleasure of learning from Lexie Hain, our newly hired Director of Agrivoltaics and Land Management. Lexie owns a farm in upstate New York and she has built a solar sheep grazing business. She’s a founding member of the American Solar Grazing Association, which develops best practices to support shepherds and solar developers to both effectively manage solar installations and create new agribusiness profits.

 Multi-use solar describes the multiple uses at a solar site. From our perspective, those uses are ways to layer in co-benefits. If you wish to have sheep grazing on your solar the site must be ready for sheep to graze. That means establishing the soil and habitat first to ensure the plants are nutritious for sheep. The image below depicts how different uses, or layers, interact and support each other.

Examples of agrivoltaics on solar farms include sheep grazing around solar arrays in Pennsylvaniaagave cactus growing within arrays in the Southwest and Mexico. Ground cover, such as native wildflowers under arrays create pollinator habitat, which supports nearby crops that are not directly on the solar farm.

 According to the Department of Energy’s  Solar Energy Technologies Office, combining energy production with farming can pay off with increased support from local communities and stronger local partnerships.

 That support can be built through economic development and job opportunities. As Kevin Smith, Lightsource bp’s CEO for the Americas, noted in a recent article, multiple career fields are opening throughout the solar industry.

At our solar farm in Deport, Texas, shepherd Ely Valdez grazes 1,700 sheep around the solar arrays. Money earned from his flock have paid off his home. “It’s changing all of our lives,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

But plenty of research remains to determine what works best for the solar industry and communities.

 Many factors determine which agricultural products make sense. Typically, the process begins with determining which solar technology is used on a site. Then, a crop suited to production in the region is put up for consideration. The crop cannot shade the panels or impede production—for example, vines would twist in the racking and hinder the performance of the trackers—and the crop should have some tolerance for shade.

Solar panels provide a welcome respite to unrelenting solar radiation and reduced transpiration rates. The solar agave and the solar sheep all benefit from the shade, requiring less in the way of irrigation or drinking water on a solar array than they do traditionally, out in an open field.

We are exploring possibilities at the Bellflower Solar Project in Indiana, where we will generate 173 megawatts of electricity for Verizon Communications. We’re working there to expand pollinator habitats and to graze sheep on the land around the solar arrays.

 Our work at Bellflower is part of a larger effort to further the scientific research into the creation of diverse pollinator habitats in the same acres as the grazing habitats. That’s a true experiment in mulit-use solar.

 Later this year, the Department of Energy will issue grants to solar developers and other researchers for its Foundational Agricultural Research for Megawatt Scale (FARMS) program. This program is needed because, despite its obvious promise, we need more research into the most effective ways to use agrivoltaics. Which types of plants or animals are the most suitable, economic, and beneficial?

 Applicants for the FARMS program provide an encouraging vision for the future. Some are developing solar panels with a light-splitting technology that allows 100 percent of the colors needed for chlorophyll to reach the plants below the panels. Others are exploring techniques that allow solar arrays to thrive in areas with high demand for available land, such as Hawaii.

 There’s so much to learn, and the applications are enticing. Whether it’s a margarita made with tequila born under a desert solar array, or honey raised from bees living on a solar farm, the possibilities are ours to explore.

This article is the fourth in a series exploring how best practices in environmental and land management increase community acceptance and enhance the surrounding environment.  Alyssa Edwards first published this article on LinkedIn in on October 17, 2022. To leave a comment or question, please view the original post here.

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