Harvesting Solar Could Help Small-Scale Farmers Improve Sustainability

This drawing depicts farmers tending crops near solar panels
A ground view of the solar panels at Jack’s Solar Garden. | (Artwork courtesy of Jack’s Solar Garden by artist Jeff Slemons)

BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. – A third generation farmer will soon attempt a new form of barn raising. Rather than just grow crops or raise livestock, Byron Kominek wants to harvest sunshine

A former U.S. diplomat in southern Africa with a master’s degree in environmental engineering, Kominek has since reinvented himself as a small-scale farmer and renewable energy advocate. At present, his goal is to install five acres of solar panels on 24 acres of farmland, which his grandfather Jack purchased in 1972.

An aerial view of the solar panels at Jack’s Solar Garden. (Artwork courtesy of Jack’s Solar Garden by artist Jeff Slemons)

Although the farm has had good years, the profit margin on crops like hay and alfalfa had declined. “Over the past few years we’ve lost money on the farm,” Kominek said. To compensate for the loss of revenue, he plans to co-locate solar panels with agricultural production.

Jack’s Solar Garden is among the first (perhaps the only farm) on the Front Range to do this and it could be the future of farming. The practice is known as agrivoltaics, a mashup of agriculture and photovoltaic, which are devices designed to generate power directly from the sun.

If agrivoltaics reduces the operating costs on farms and ranches of Colorado, farmers in California are bound to take notice. Agriculture consumes 8% of the energy used in the state, much of that is used for pumping groundwater and irrigation on 5 million acres of farmland in the Central and Imperial Valleys. Therefore, solutions aimed at reducing energy and water consumption can have a huge impact on a farmer’s bottom line.

For now, the technology has a Whole Earth Catalog tang to it, recalling an era of geodesic domes and off-the-grid pot farms. Although the hippies’ back-to-the-land movement waned during the 70s, their influence has endured. In rural towns across the U.S. organic farming and marijuana cultivation is an essential, if not, increasingly mainstream part of the rural economy. Meanwhile, interest in sustainable farming continues to increase, due to concern over the specter of climate shocks, such as drought and food security.

According to the U.N. solving food-energy-water nexus is central to sustainable development. The demand for all three is increasing due to the global rise in population, industrialization and the growth of the global economy. Agriculture consumes one-third of the world’s freshwater supply and accounts for 25% of the energy consumed.

The purpose of agrivoltaics is to untangle this resource conundrum. Enabling farmers to diversify their income by producing renewable energy, while preserving much of their land for crop production. Typically, it’s an array of solar panels perched high enough above the ground to grow shade-tolerant plants beneath them with enough clearance to allow people, livestock and farm equipment to pass.

Oregon vineyard in the Willamette Valley wine region utilizing solar power. (Photo courtesy Jason Lander/Creative Commons License)

After discussing the benefits of agrivoltaics with friends in Colorado and realizing the myriad of challenges that he faced, Komineck saw an opportunity. “I thought, ‘Why not try it on our farm?’” he said.

He worked with Boulder officials in updating land use code to allow community solar gardens on more farmland across the county. By year’s end, the farm could have 3,000 panels set in rows 17 feet apart. Each row will track the sun from east to west. Dubbed Jack’s Solar Garden after his grandfather, his website offers renderings of his vision for the what the project will look like upon completion.

In addition to growing crops beneath solar panels, Komineck has plans to generate 1.2 megawatts of electricity, enough power to supply up to 300 homes connected to the grid. Under this rubric, consumers will purchase energy from Jack’s Solar Garden in much the same way they can purchase produce directly from farmers. But instead of selling fruits and vegetables, this CSA will produce electricity. “We’ll be selling subscriptions to the community and to large institutions,” he said.

If that wasn’t ambitious enough, he also intends to plant an apple orchard and keep bees. To stay on track, Komineck has partnered with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory Lab (NREL), University of Arizona and Colorado State University.

NREL and other research institutions are testing the merits of agrivoltaics in about 20 locations across the country with projects in the planning stages or underway in Oregon, Arizona and California, among others. “What we try to do is design projects to meet local needs and adapt to local conditions,” said Jordan Macknick, lead energy water and analyst for NREL.

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At this juncture, NREL’s goal is to move agrivoltaics out of the lab and into farm settings. Traditionally, farming and solar panels were considered incompatible. When renewable energy companies leased or purchased land from farmers they removed the topsoil, taking the land out of agricultural production.

Agrivoltaics refrains from removing the topsoil. Instead of packed earth or gravel, a farmer has the option to grow native plants or to plant shade-tolerant crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and squash.

One of the challenges of agrivoltaics is a matter of finding the sweet spot between shade and sun. Placement of the panels is critical, set far enough apart to allow plants to flourish without substantial cuts in energy production. Too much shade will impede photosynthesis. On the other hand, excess heat hampers the performance of solar panels, reducing their ability to produce power.

According to Macknick, the combination of the panels and vegetation can improve productivity because the shadows cast by solar panels and the groundcover work together to create a favorable microclimate. “Under the solar panels you have better moisture retention. What we’re finding is slightly cooler temperatures during the day and slightly warmer temperatures at night.”

Solar cell panels installed over paddy fields in Kamisu City, Ibaraki Pref., Japan. (Photo courtesy Σ64 / Creative Commons License)

A recent paper published in the journal PLOS One offered some tantalizing details. In May 2015, researchers at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, installed microclimate research stations beside solar panels with and without vegetation underneath. The instrumentation gathered data on the ambient temperature, humidity and soil moisture. Over the course of the summer, data revealed the soil under the solar panels with vegetation had higher moisture content. Moreover, the plant volume had doubled in size and yielded greater nutritional value in comparison to un-shaded plants in the surrounding area.

“Under this configuration if you can produce more crops with less water, who doesn’t want to see that,” said Macknick.

However not every farm is suitable for agrivoltaics. Installing solar panels may be cost prohibitive, for example, in remote areas with ample farmland and an abundant water supply.

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In California, exploring agrivoltaics will require striking a balance between the competing interests of farmland conservation and energy production. Legislation SB100, places California on the road to a 100 percent low-carbon, renewable energy future by 2045. How the state plans to meet this targeted goal remains an open question.

One potential roadblock for agrivoltaics is the Williamson Act of 1965, a statute designed to prevent the leapfrog development of farmland. The law enables local governments to enter into contracts with farmers to keep the land in agricultural production or open space.

Perhaps because of it, California’s farm counties ar slow to change. The Division of Land Resource reports 15,776 acres of farmland converted from agricultural production to solar power between 2014-2016. During that time frame the total number of acres in agricultural production dipped slightly from 31,386,872 to 31,351,190 acres.

Meanwhile, Komineck is blazing a path for his family farm with the help of solar technology.