Problem: A clean, renewable energy (CRE) developer is proposing to construct a solar energy project on land within a rural agricultural area of our community. We have government goals and initiatives promoting the reduction of carbon footprints by accelerating the pace of replacing dependence on fossil fuels with CRE sources (e.g., solar, wind). At the same time, similar goals and initiatives suggest supporting farmers and preserving more farmland. We think that both are important. Do we create a win-lose scenario by supporting one and sacrificing the other?
Answer: You may not have to choose. There is a win-win option. Rather than choosing solar over farming (or vice versa), there is a more sustainable approach emerging. “Agrivoltaics” is a system of collocating and simultaneously operating agriculture and solar energy generation on the same land, helping to maximize the land’s overall production value. The term is derived from “agriculture” and “photovoltaics” (generating electricity from sunlight).
Over the past few years, CRE projects have been increasingly proposed on land in rural agricultural areas. Not surprisingly, there has been a corresponding increase in the amount of local opposition to these projects. Opposition concerns include the potential loss of farming businesses and destruction of farmland and soils.
But from an agricultural standpoint, CRE facilities help to protect, enhance, and support agricultural goals and initiatives. CRE facilities support local farmers and their agricultural operations by providing additional compatible, low-impact farm income producing opportunities. In most instances, additional income is derived from owners leasing their land to CRE developers. Because CRE facilities generally do not necessitate stripping or removing large, contiguous swaths of soil, these facilities result in conserved land and preserved soils, including those considered “prime farmland” or “farmland of statewide importance”. Farmland used for CRE facilities can easily be returned to active agricultural production after these energy facilities are decommissioned. Soils that are not actively farmed during the years the CRE facilities are in operation are allowed to “rest”, thereby potentially increasing productivity once returned to active agriculture production.
But farmland does not need to be taken out of active agricultural production in lieu of siting solar energy projects. Enter agrivoltaics. Agrivoltaics sites are specifically designed to be used simultaneously for both agricultural and solar energy production. Most traditional solar energy facilities without agrivoltaics include shorter (2’-3’), fixed-mount solar panels with gravel or lawn grasses installed underneath or between the rows of panels. Accordingly, these areas are not accessible and waste the land’s production potential. But solar energy facilities incorporating agrivoltaics are different. Argrivoltaics include taller (>5’) solar tracking panels (that move to follow the sun’s position). The areas beneath and between the panels are more accessible by persons, equipment and vehicles. Areas beneath the panels tend to remain cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter, and hold moisture longer. These areas are appropriate for growing native and other beneficial and productive plants and shrubs, and providing shade for livestock. Vegetation can be used for human consumption (e.g., beets, potatoes), livestock grazing (e.g., sheep) or pollinators for bees. Although preferred and appropriate vegetation is dependent upon specific climatic, locational and soil characteristics, vegetation generally is shorter and thrives in partial sun-shade. Finally, where livestock is present, equipment is designed to avoid, or be reinforced, to withstand these potential interactions.
Moving forward, communities and solar energy developers should collaboratively plan and implement solar energy projects with agrivoltaics to maximize the overall production value of farmland.