By David Murray

In the 1940s, my great-grandfather purchased a small farm in the Hudson Valley of New York. He raised chickens and grew tomatoes, strawberries, and other crops until he passed away. My extended family treasures this farm, but with every passing year, maintaining it becomes less economic. The temptation to sell the property gets stronger.

Thousands of small farmers across America share my family’s story. The agriculture industry is increasingly consolidated, moving to a large, corporate business model. Farming technology has advanced rapidly, leading to crop prices are driven low. Small, independent farmers are often pushed out of the market. Meanwhile, real estate development in rural areas and suburban sprawl creates a pull: from 2001 to 2016, the U.S. converted 11 million acres of farmland to non-agricultural uses, with low density residential land use as the primary driver.

On one hand, the trend is unsurprising: as we become more efficient at growing food, we require less land – and fewer people – – to farm. On the other hand, small farmers play an important role in our food system, and families like mine should be able to pass a successful operation down to the next generation. For many families, solar energy provides that opportunity.

Leasing land to a solar developer provides stable, consistent income, helping some farmers avoid having to sell the land, which often gets converted to housing, commercial real estate, or other uses. In this manner, solar energy protects against what conservation organizations fear the most: low-density, suburban sprawl.

Solar energy development can also preserve the land: after approximately 30 years, the next generation can convert the property back to agricultural use. Finally, many farmers are already accustomed to supporting America’s energy needs: over 30 million acres of farmland are used to grow corn for ethanol.

Of course, farmers need to think long term: what are the impacts to the land from solar development? One benefit is nutrient runoff: solar facilities require less fertilizer than most crops; thus, nutrient runoff from solar facilities is typically less than the pre-existing agricultural use. Native grasses and legumes also mitigate erosion and improve water quality by intercepting sediment and nutrients. Solar development also cuts down on pesticide and insecticide use. Herbicide may be used during the site preparation process, but more sparingly once the facility is in operation. For arid regions, solar reduces water use – leaving an increasingly valuable resource to neighboring farming operations.

However, for families like mine that want continue using our farm to grow food and feed, agrivoltaics provides an exciting opportunity. This is why the American Clean Power Association is happy to work with the National Center for Appropriate Technology’s AgriSolar Clearinghouse to make agrivoltaics an increasingly financially feasible option for farmers.

Solar grazing is a bright spot. While letting sheep into an active power plant comes with a unique set of challenges, in certain cases it can be cheaper than a traditional landscaping crew. Data from the American Solar Grazing Association shows smaller projects are more likely to use solar grazing, but the association recently noted that a 200-megawatt (MW) solar project is slated to incorporate sheep into its vegetative management plan. For sites where solar grazing works, it can be an excellent win-win-win.

In the meantime, the industry is working to bring down costs of other forms of agrivoltaics, such as crop production underneath panels. A key challenge is raising the height of solar panels to accommodate farming. Unfortunately, raising solar panels significantly increases costs, as the piles need to be taller and driven further into the ground. Expensive machinery – such as a scissor lift – is needed to install piles deep enough to ensure they are secured properly to resist heavy winds. These lifts are not designed for use on solar sites. Furthermore, this process requires more labor to successfully deploy the equipment. This is an example of a major challenge that ACP is excited to work with NCAT on to make agrivoltaics more widespread.

We are aiming for a future where many types of agrivoltaics can scale, while ensuring that solar energy remains one of the cheapest forms of new energy generation. Thus, ACP will continue engaging with NCAT to identify ways to bring down the costs of agrivoltaic projects and continue to foster partnerships between the solar industry and agriculture sector.

David Murray is the Director of Solar Policy at the American Clean Power Association.

Merging community solar and AgriSolar could aid the Department of Energy’s (DOE) goal of saving $1 billion in energy costs through community solar by 2025. Not only would merging community solar and AgriSolar help DOE reach that goal, but would also provide other opportunities and benefits such as the regeneration of soil on solar sites, reducing fuel-operated maintenance demands, and increasing the likelihood of future solar development(s). 

What is community solar? 

Community solar could be an ideal method for low-income households who might be looking to use solar energy and use Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) assistance to pay for their energy bills. LIHEAP funds cannot be used for things like up-front installation costs of typical solar participation methods (non-community solar) or the household ultimately owning the solar equipment. Community solar participation eliminates these issues due to the solar farm and panels not being developed, owned or operated by the LIHEAP recipient.  

LIHEAP Participants Would Lead to More Energy Savings 

Community solar often includes what is known as subscription-based community solar programs (SBCSPs), where a household “rents” solar panels and uses solar energy without the associated conditions and costs of installing solar panels, operating them, or owning them. These conditions of using solar energy typically would not qualify a low-income household to use LIHEAP funds for solar fuel. However, SBCSPs could provide a way for low-income households to be able to use LIHEAP benefit payments for solar fuel through subscription-based community solar programs because the household would not ultimately own the equipment or have to pay for its installation or maintenance costs. 

If LIHEAP participants are eligible for SBCSPs, then more people can participate in saving energy by using community AgriSolar, which ultimately assists in the identified goal of the Department of Energy (DOE) in reaching $1 billion in energy savings through community solar by 2025. 

Why merge AgriSolar with community solar? 

Community solar has been identified by DOE as a method of reaching energy savings goals by 2025, which includes saving $1 billion in energy costs. Merging AgriSolar with community solar developments would not only aid in significant energy savings but would also make future solar developments more likely to be approved—expanding energy savings even further. 

AgriSolar operations like the Cabriejo Ranch in Missouri has shown that AgriSolar provides a variety of energy saving methods as well as regenerating the land used by solar farms. The ranch uses Dorper sheep to manage the vegetation on solar operations, which drastically reduces the use of fuel-operated maintenance equipment typically used to manage vegetation. The sheep not only reduce these energy costs, but dramatically increase the health of the soil .  

The likelihood of a solar farm being approved for development is higher when AgriSolar is incorporated into the operations. This was seen in the Garnet Mesa project that was denied due to concerns about losing valuable farmland to the solar-farm development. The project was approved after changes were made to include 1,000 grazing sheep on the solar farm. 

The Possibilities of Merging AgriSolar and Community Solar   

 More participants saving more energy would be a win-win for reaching energy-and-cost savings goals.  

Not only do energy savings goals have a higher likelihood of being achieved through merging community solar and AgriSolar, but other benefits of using AgriSolar would also be made possible, such as regenerating soil health through grazing practices and supporting  job creations in local communities such as grazing management and farm operations jobs created in Missouri. These benefits of using AgriSolar in solar development increases the likelihood of future solar developments by proving the land can be effectively utilized while occupied by solar equipment and operations.  

By Stacie Peterson, PhD

See more photos from the tour in the AgriSolar Flikr album here: Follow the Sun Tour: Massachusetts | Flickr

The farmlands of Massachusetts are cherished landscapes, steeped in cultural significance and family connections. Coming from the drought-ridden western United States, I was struck first by the lack of irrigation pivots and the lushness of the landscape, even after a heatwave uncommon to the area. I then scanned the rolling hills for solar, excited to see the Massachusetts SMART program in action. I wasn’t disappointed. The solar array at the University of Massachusetts South Deerfield Research Farm presented a picture-perfect site to start our tour.

Follow the Sun Tour Attendees at the UMass South Deerfield Agrivoltaic Research Site

The tour attendees matched my enthusiasm by showing up early and leaning over the fence to better view the solar farm. We were welcomed by Dr. Dwayne Berger from University of Massachusetts, who gave a presentation on the DOE SETO-funded research at the farm. This project involves the study of crop productivity on crops planted under a solar array installed by Hyperion Solar.

Next, Gerry Palano gave a presentation on Massachusetts Agricultural Solar Tariff Generation Units and their relation to agrivoltaics in the Massachusetts Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) Program, which provides financial incentives for solar projects. From there, we went out to the farm, where Jake Marley from Hyperion Systems described the solar array design, and Dr. Stephen Herbert discussed the current crops and research at the array.After a quick lunch, we boarded the bus and started our mobile conference of speakers. Dr. Zach Goff-Eldredge kicked off the bus tour with a discussion of DOE SETO’s programs and their support of agrivoltaics. 

Dr. Zach Goff-Eldredge Manager of DOE SETO Agrivoltaic Programs

AgriSolar Clearinghouse consultant Alexis Pascaris of AgriSolar Consulting then gave an inspiring talk, envisioning the future of agrisolar from the perspective of farmers, landowners, solar developers, and community members.    

Candace Rossi from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) then spoke to the group about the impactful programs in New York State and their relevance to AgriSolar around the country. We arrived at Nate Tassinari’s family farm in Monson with the sun high overhead. Nate welcomed the group to his home and talked about the Million Little Sunbeams project he developed  to preserve his family’s farmlands. The farm includes co-located solar and hay, an apiary, and an orchard. As shown in the photo, the 250-kW solar array, installed by Sunbug Solar, has an elevated racking system that accommodates haying equipment. The panels are bifacial, and Nate described the increased solar energy production from the bifacial panels as a result of both hay and snow reflections.

The Million Little Sunbeams project created a financial pathway for Nate and his family to own the land and the solar system; this project does not involve a lease to a solar developer.  Nate graciously fielded questions about his process and Gerry Palano fielded questions about the SMART funding piece of the project. Nick d’Arbeloff from Sunbug Solar fielded technical questions about the solar array and site design.

Nate Tassinari at Million Little Sunbeams Solar and Hay Site

We then travelled to a late-breaking and welcome addition to our tour with Dan Finnegan from Solar Shepherd in Brookfield. On the way, Lexie Hain, former president of the American Solar Grazing Association and current Director of Agrivoltaics and Land Management at Lightsource BP, gave the group a background on solar grazing.When we arrived at Solar Shepherd, Dan’s assistant, Reggie the Wonder Dog, herded the sheep toward the gate to greet us and then herded them to the solar array, so we could witness solar grazing first- hand. Dan described his solar grazing work in Massachusetts and talked with tour members about the practicalities of solar grazing, such as sheep transportation, water needs, leasing, and solar grazing contracts.

Solar Grazing with Solar Shepherd

After Solar Shepherd, we boarded the bus to travel to our last agrisolar site: Grafton Solar at Knowlton Farms. On the way, we heard from AgriSolar Clearinghouse stakeholder Ethan Winter from American Farmland Trust (AFT) about AFT work on smart solar siting, agrivoltaics, and at  

Grafton Solar at Knowlton Farms provided the tour group with the opportunity to see a large-scale agrisolar site. The 334-acre hay farm includes solar developed in several phases on 75 acres. In addition to Paul Knowlton, fourth-generation family owner of Knowlton Farms, the project includes a slew of agrivoltaic advocates, solar developers, researchers, and the State of Massachusetts. 

The agrisolar portion of Knowlton Farms, known as Grafton Solar, is owned and operated by AES Corporation, which pays Knowlton Farms lease payments and a stipend for the cost of farming. The Massachusetts SMART program provided incentives for the project and the University of Massachusetts and American Farmland Trust study the impact of the solar array on crop yields and soil conditions.

Paul Knowlton, at Grafton Solar at Knowlton Farms

Paul Knowlton talked with the group about his decision to enter into a lease agreement for solar at his farm, its positive financial impact to his family business, and his hopes that the project will help keep the farm in the family well into the future. Dr. Sam Glaze-Corcoran from University of Massachusetts Amherst described soil and crop studies and, along with Gerry Palano and Swayne Berger, fielded questions about how those studies inform University of Massachusetts recommendations to the SMART program.  Ian Ward, of Solar Agricultural Services, discussed the site design, plantings, and the potential for this project to serve as an example for other farmers in New England. Ian’s advocacy centers on keeping farmlands in the hands of farmers and in preserving farmlands for the future. Julie Fine, AFT’s Climate and agriculture specialist then led the group crop co-location potion of the site and described her work assessing impacts to crops, soil, and ecosystem services.

The group then boarded the bus for the ride back to Amherst, full of ideas, connections, and energy. Charles Gould, from Michigan State University Extension, talked about his impressions of the day, his work in agrivoltaics, and his thoughts on the future. Judy Anderson, of Community Consultants, led the tour group in a roundtable discussion of the tour, ways to engage policy makers, and how to move forward in a way that supports agrisolar throughout the country. 

Million Little Sunbeams AgriSolar Site

Tours like this are months in the making. From scouting potential sites and tour routes to meetings with farms, solar developers, local governments, and potential speakers. They have the complexity and logistics of a mobile conference. This tour couldn’t have happened without the help of Alexis Pascaris of AgriSolar Consulting and Jake Marley of Hyperion Systems. They were at the heart of this tour and worked with me for months as we planned, connected, and revised. They were flexible with last-minute changes, and I deeply appreciate their contributions to the tour.

I’d like to thank University of Massachusetts for hosting the event at the South Deerfield farm and for allowing us to gather in their meeting space. Thank you, too, to Nate Tassinari for hosting us at his home in Monson; I appreciate his flexibility with last-minute schedule changes and his warm and insightful tour of his farm. Dan Finnegan and Reggie the Wonder Dog deserve a huge round of applause for treating the group to a demonstration of solar grazing in Brookfield. And thank you to Paul Knowlton, The AES Corporation, Ian Ward, Glaze-Corcoran, Julie Fine, Dwayne Berger, and Gerry Palano for the excellent tour of Knowlton Farms. It is a model agrisolar site with impressive research and support.

I’d like to thank the Solar Energy Technology Office of the U.S. Department of Energy for funding this work and Dr. Zach Goff-Eldredge for attending the tour. His support of agrivoltaics is evident around the country and the work the SETO team is doing in this space is creating a pathway for co-located agriculture and solar that works for farmers, community members, and solar developers.

NCAT’s Sustainable Energy and Sustainable Agriculture Teams Joining Forces for AgriSolar

I’d like to thank Danielle Miska, Andy Pressman, and Chris Lent from NCAT for their work on this project and for the AgriSolar Clearinghouse team at NCAT, around the country who cheered us on. I’d also like to thank Nicole Karr, our photographer. It is her beautiful photos throughout this blog. Finally, I’d like to express my gratitude to the tour attendees. The Follow the Sun Tour is one way the AgriSolar Clearinghouse works to build community, relationships, and trusted, practical information and I thank you all for joining us. It was a marathon tour of presentations, site tours, bus speakers, roundtables, networking, honey sticks, and fun. Your energy and enthusiasm are inspiring, and I can’t wait to see you on the road again.

See more photos from the tour in the AgriSolar Flikr album here: Follow the Sun Tour: Massachusetts | Flickr.

By: Stacie Peterson

Minnesota is a leader in agrisolar, thanks to innovative policies, inspiring research, and a committed network of agrivoltaic and pollinator advocates. The Follow the Sun Tour had the opportunity to visit four of Minnesota’s AgriSolar sites on an action-packed summer day full of site visits, speakers, and a social networking event on August 4, 2022. 

We began the day by gathering at Connexus Energy’s Headquarters. After group introductions, we boarded a bus, which served as a mobile conference room, and heard from our first speaker, Heidi Kolbeck-Urlacher from Center for Rural Affairs. Heidi spoke about the Center’s work in agrivoltaics and their work as a partner of the AgriSolar Clearinghouse.

Heidi Kokbeck-Urlacher Speaking on the Follow the Sun Bus

Our first tour stop was the Enel North America Lake Pulaski site. This site combines solar, pollinators, an apiary, and sheep grazing. Jesse Puckett and Eric Bjorklund from Enel North America gave a safety briefing, an overview of the site, and described Enel’s agrisolar work around the world. 

Jesse Puckett and Eric Bjorklund of Enel North America Speaking at Lake Pulaski

Jesse then passed it off to Jake Janski and Audrey Lomax from Minnesota Native Landscapes (MNL), who described the plant and sheep grazing management process and studies at the site.

Jake Janski Describing MNL Work at the Lake Pulaski Site

Solar Grazing Sheep at Lake Pulaski

Audrey Lomax Fielding Questions from Tour Attendees

Jordan Macknick, James McCall, Abbi Brown, Haley Paterson, and Benjamin Frank from NREL talked about their InSPIRE project work and their robust studies of the Lake Pulaski site and the relation to other InSPIRE research projects around the country.

Jordan Macknick and James McCall Describing NREL’s InSPIRE Research and Work
Iara Lacher Taking Photos of Pollinators

Dustin Vanasse from Bare Honey then treated the group to an experience of a lifetime.  He brought six beekeeper suits and let the group interact with an active hive on the site.

Follow the Sun Tour Attendee with a Close-Up View of the Hive

Beekeeping with Dustin Vanasse of Bare Honey at Lake Pulaski

While we took turns in the bee suits, John Vaughn from the Minnesota Rural Renewable Energy Alliance talked about their work. After removing the beekeeper suits, we boarded the bus and heard from Wendy Caldwell from Monarch Joint Venture about the positive impacts of solar pollinator habitat on the monarch population while we enjoyed Bare Honey solar grown honey sticks.

Wendy Caldwell Capturing Photos of Monarch Caterpillars

Our second stop took us to the US Solar’s Big Lake facility. We had so much help from Rob Schultz on navigating to these sites, and I am so grateful he was there to guide us through the day.

Rob Schultz Discussing How to Help Us Find the Next Tour Stop

At Big Lake, we heard from Colleen Hollinger from Natural Resource Services and Peter Schmitt and Ross Abbey from US Solar.

Colleen Hollinger Describing AgriSolar Impacts to the Surrounding Ecosystem 

Back on the bus, Dan Shaw talked with us about his work with pollinators and solar, including his work developing the pollinator scorecard system.

Dan Shaw and Wendy Caldwell at the US Solar Big Lake Site

We then stopped at the at the Connexus’ Solar + Storage Site (link to case study), where our partner Rob Davis talked about Connexus’ work in agrisolar and sustainable energy. Heidi Hartman from Argonne National Lab discussed her research into the ecosystem services at the site and brought a group of researchers with her to collect data from the site.

Rob Davis Describing Connexus Energy’s Solar + Storage Site

Heidi Hartmann Describing Argonne Ecosystem Services Research at the Connexus Site

Group Photo at the Connexus Solar Plus Storage Site

We finished the day with a Solar Farm to Table Sampler, sponsored by Enel North America, through a grant to the National Center for Appropriate Technology’s AgriSolar Education program. This event featured food and beverages grown at solar farms and was held at Connexus Energy Headquarters.

Chefs Erin Lucas and Mateo Mackbee created a wonderful menu of delicious food, including spicy braised lamb flat bread with chiltepin peppers from the Biosphere agrisolar site, and lamb from Cannon Valley Graziers and Minnesota Native Landscapes Minnesota; a solar greens salad with solar-grown honey and sweet grass vinaigrette featuring honey from Connexus and Enel solar in Minnesota and greens and sweet grass from NREL and Colorado solar; saffron vegetable skewers featuring saffron from Vermont solar; vegetables from NREL and Colorado solar; Minnesota solar-grown peach and plum cobbler, featuring fruit from Enel solar in Minnesota. 

Chef’s Erin Lucas and Mateo MackBee
Delicious Solar-grown Food at the Solar Sampler Event

The chefs cooked the food with solar power, including a solar generator and a solar-powered electric truck, powered by the Connexus Headquarters solar array. For drinks, solar-grown honey sweetened the lemonade and Rob Davis’s signature cocktail, Everything but the Stinger, featuring Clif Family’s solar-grown honey ginger syrup. Invictus Brewing treated the group to their 1.7 Million Megawatts British Summer Ale, made with solar-grown honey.

The sampler was an excellent networking opportunity and chance to discuss what we learned and witnessed through the day. There was so much excitement about future projects and partnerships and plans. The hum of enthusiasm was palpable. 

Networking at the Follow the Sun Tour

While folks connected, we heard from Greg Ridderbush, Connexus Energy’s CEO, about their commitment to agrivoltaics and sustainable energy and the great work performed by the company. We then heard again from Jesse Puckett and from Rob Davis, and I wrapped up the day with a hearty toast to our AgriSolar Clearinghouse community. 

Connexus Energy CEO Greg Ridderbush

As I milled around, I watched the AgriSolar network strengthen and expand. Folks made plans, dreamed up future events, talked about partnerships, exchanged business cards, and enjoyed each other’s company. As our stakeholder Lucy Stolzenberg said, the only way to make the event better would be to have another!

A Toast with Invictus Brewing’s 1.7 Million Megawatts British Summer Ale

AgriSolar Clearinghouse partner Rob Davis has generously offered a full Solar Farm Lego set as a prize for the winner of the competition for best photo taken at one of the Follow the Sun tour field trips.

This set is priceless and can not be purchased.  If you support the idea of a real-life Lego set being commercially available, vote here: LEGO IDEAS – Solar Farm.  For a great background on the kit, see this NREL blog.

Please post your Follow the Sun photos to our forum here, or tag us on social media by using the hashtag #AgriSolar.

Solar Farm Lego Set. Photo: Rob Davis

The Follow the Sun Tour launched in Arizona, at Biosphere 2 and the Manzo Elementary agrivoltaic research site, and it was a great educational, inspirational, and networking event.  Next up, we will travel to Minnesota on August 4 to tour Enel North America’s Lake Pulaski agrisolar site, US Solar’s Big Lake agrisolar site, and Connexus Energy’s agrisolar site in Ramsey. We’ll end the day on a sweet note with an Enel-sponsored Solar Farm to Table™ event featuring foods grown or pollinated at agrisolar sites.  Get your free tickets here: Events – AgriSolar Clearinghouse.

The next week, we’ll travel to Massachusetts for a tour of the University of Massachusetts South Deerfield agrisolar research site and then  the Million Little Sunbeams solar and hay farm, capping off the day at Knowlton Farms. Get your free tickets here: Events – AgriSolar Clearinghouse

In September, we will join forces with Jack’s Solar Garden, Sprout City Farms, and our partners at NREL and University of Arizona to tour Jack’s Solar Garden during its annual Night on the Farm.  Stay tuned for details.

Over the next year, we’re planning more field trips to central California, Texas, Oregon, Virginia, Idaho, New York, and many more sites.  If you have a site you’d like to highlight with an AgriSolar Clearinghouse fieldtrip, we’d love to hear from you.  We’re looking forward to seeing you on the road!

By Emma Kampherbeek

Land is limited. Agriculture, electricity production, housing, nature, etc. all compete for the same plot of land. In some areas more than in others, but the competition is everywhere. On top of that, greenhouse gas emissions keep increasing and the global temperature keeps rising, leading to more frequent natural disasters and parts of the earth becoming uninhabitable. We shouldn’t only focus on stopping the global temperature from rising, but also on climate change adaptation and multifunctional land use now that ‘good’ land is getting scarcer.

It makes sense to have at least dual land use, but preferably use land for three, four or even more purposes. Agriculture and electricity production are a really good fit that can create win-win situations. That’s why I researched what I like to call ‘Solar Sheep’ – sheep that perform vegetation management on solar farms.

A lot of research is currently being done on the impacts of solar farms on soil health and biodiversity of flora and fauna. But what about sheep? Sheep are very effective grazers, which means that they are perfect for vegetation management on solar farms. Unlike goats, sheep don’t jump on the panels and don’t chew the wires. Unlike cattle, they are not heavy and large, which means that they can easily graze under the panels. They are also great with different types of terrain, like steep, rocky hills, which are hard to navigate for (robotic) mowers. These are a few of the advantages of sheep for solar farm owners.

Gold Tree Solar Farm Sheep Grazing. Photo: Emma Kampherbeek

How about advantages for the sheep? Is it also a positive experience for them to graze under solar panels? As many farmers who use their sheep for vegetation management on solar farms can tell you, sheep really don’t seem to mind grazing under and between the solar panels. This is also what my research showed, which was conducted on Gold Tree Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo, CA, in January 2021. Sheep on the solar farm grazed more than sheep in the natural rangeland without solar panels (see Figure 1). The solar panels provide shade and protection to the sheep. This prevents them from experiencing heat stress and protects them from harsh weather conditions, which will happen more frequently in the face of climate change. I live in the Netherlands, so heat stress didn’t use to be a big issue here, but in the last decade cases and mortality of heat stress have increased significantly.

Figure 1 Bar graphs showing the mean (± SEM) of the total percentage of time spent grazing during the Main study over the total period of sixteen days of both treatment groups (NR & S) and both management types (R & IR).
* P < 0.0001, ** P = 0.0015, *** P = 0.031. (S = Solar; NR = Native Rangeland; R = Rotational; IR = Intensive Rotational).

The article is now under peer review but will hopefully be published later this year in the Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science as an open-access article.

Ridge to Reefs staff, including Emma Verlinden, Phal Mantha, and Paul Sturm

Hawai’i has a deep-rooted agricultural history, and today there are more than 7,000 individual farms in operation. Due to a confluence of factors, agricultural producers in Hawai’i face a variety of significant challenges when compared with their mainland counterparts. High costs associated with land, labor, and inputs, as well as relative geographic isolation from large markets in the continental United States are notable contributing factors. Other challenges in the form of habitat modifying invasive species, degraded agricultural infrastructure, and legacy agricultural problems continue to impact the agricultural viability and competitiveness of Hawaiian producers today. Furthermore, electricity costs in the Hawai’i are among the highest in the United States with residential consumers paying an average of about 37 cents a kilowatt-hour (UH-HERO ). In 2015, the State of Hawai’i mandated that by the year 2045, 100% of the state’s electricity must be generated by renewable energy sources. Electric companies on the islands have made efforts to increase their renewable energy portfolio, such as energy provider Hawaiian Electric, which increased its renewable sources to 38.4% in the past few years. Though a variety of challenges exist, widespread adoption of regionally adapted agrisolar models could provide Hawaiian agricultural producers, landholders, and communities with significant benefits. A closer look at recent solar developments and related progress (or lack of progress in some cases) in Hawaii may help to paint a clearer picture of the opportunities and challenges that are associated with adoption of these technologies.

The Wailua Egg Solar + Sheep Farm is a 6 MW Solar + battery project that will host 1 million cage free chickens spread across 11 buildings and raise 200 sheep a year for Oahu markets and restaurants. The facility is completely grid independent with solar arrays incorporated into cage free shelters and the resulting poultry litter being converted into biochar by gasifiers. Wastewater and process water are recycled for irrigation purposes and are also land applied to designated leach fields located on site.

Figure 1: Aerial image of Wailua Egg Solar Sheep Farm’s existing solar poultry houses. The proposed expansion of this solar farm and sheep grazing operations have faced some local opposition due to a variety of concerns.

Figure 2: Aerial view of the farm’s poultry litter gasifier, which converts poultry litter into biochar, a valuable soil amendment.

Figure 2: Aerial view of the farm’s poultry litter gasifier, which converts poultry litter into biochar, a valuable soil amendment.

Though there are clear cost, food security, and environmental benefits associated with this operation, concerns have been raised about upcoming expansions (specifically, the proposed solar farm and sheep grazing areas). In Hawai’i, IAL (Important Agricultural Lands) designation prohibits all uses except what is defined as “agricultural use.” This has the potential to limit the locations where photovoltaic and agrisolar projects can be developed. This criticism also serves to highlight a key issue surrounding these projects in the state: the “food vs. Fuel” debate and the use of prime agricultural lands for energy generation. This is one reason this project has run into local opposition, with some citizens and residents reporting that they are concerned over the use of fallow “prime agricultural lands” for power generation. Though these are valid concerns, integrating grazing practices and other forms of agriculture with photovoltaic based power generation may help to balance these concerns and simultaneously produce power and food on the lands. According to a recent white paper published by the Ulupono Initiative citing University of Hawai’i researcher Dr. Matthias Fripp’s work, a viable solution may be to utilize sloped lands for these developments so that they do not use up prime agricultural lands. Specifically, this publication notes that “While solar developers may be apprehensive to developing on higher-sloped lands…a willingness to develop solar facilities on sites with <20% slope, at a slightly higher per project cost, will allow for most, if not all, of Oahu’s agricultural lands to be protected.”

Other challenges to solar developments in the state include the Jones Act, which can limit procurement options, resulting in high material and shipping costs. Furthermore, Land Study Bureau Classifications classifying farmland from most productive to least productive can limit areas that can be used for such projects. Though challenges to widespread adoption of agrisolar technologies in Hawai’i still exist, there is strong potential for numerous co-benefits both at the utility and individual farm scale.

Figure 3: Integrating grazing sheep with solar developments in the Hawai’i has proven to be an effective and low cost solution to managing agressive invasive grasses such as Guinea Grass and Cane Grass which can be the dominant land cover on many agricultural lands in the state.

Even at the individual farm scale, integration of photovoltaics with agricultural operations can facilitate a diverse array of use cases and has the potential to yield numerous benefits for local stakeholders. For example, photovoltaics integrated with refrigeration systems can provide robust, grid-independent cold storage and energy for critical operations and post-harvest processing facilities.

Figure 4: Th is breadfruit farm, nursery, and value-added product manufacturing facility for breadfruit flour in Puerto Rico is powered entirely by solar power. This model can also be applied in Hawa’ii and has the potential to provide farmers with robust grid independent post-harvest processing capabilites.

Furthermore, solar irrigation, water filtration, native species, and pollinator habitat can all be integrated with these solutions in a regionally adapted and relevant manner. Specifically, adoption of agrisolar technologies can provide agricultural practitioners with the opportunity to generate additional income, reduce operational and maintenance costs, decrease water consumption, utilize marginal agricultural lands, and protect the quality of their soil. Financially, these solutions may allow them to generate additional income by selling electricity from their lands, leasing land to solar developers, and powering their own farm equipment. The cost of imported energy sources, such as petroleum and coal, to Hawai’i is approximately – three to four times higher than on the mainland and decreasing the need for these sources by constructing solar modules on agricultural land could save farmers a great deal.

In fact, a study in 2012 showed that the standard solar construction in Hawai’i paid for itself in only four years and generated a profit of over four times the initial cost over the course of its life (8 ). Farmers can also decrease the cost of irrigation on their lands. There are currently solar modules that are being used to fully power irrigation systems on farmland in Africa, South America, and India (1). The significance of this is great, as roughly 85% of all water use globally is for irrigation systems, and Hawai’i is actively experiencing difficulty with water shortages and seeking innovative solutions for increasing water availability and reuse. Plants and crops that are grown underneath the shade of solar panels require less water than when exposed to full sunlight. This is due to the fact that plants in full sunlight reach their light saturation point earlier in the day, after which they do not grow more or photosynthesize more, they simply require even greater amounts of water to process the levels of sunlight.

Hawai’i also has an extensive history of monocultural plantation agriculture that has left a lasting mark on the quality of the soil where farmers are growing crops today, exemplifying what are known as legacy agricultural issues. In some areas, nutrients and organic matter from the soil have been heavily overdrawn, forcing farmers to rely on expensive imported fertilizers to maintain their production. Over the course of these decades, excessive tilling of the earth and subsequent depletion of organic matter has led to erosion, soil loss, and pollution to sensitive coastal ecosystems. There are also previously used agricultural roads that often are no longer actively managed, which combined with erosion are leading to ongoing pollution and sediment export from these areas. One study found that solar installations can provide a recovery period for overused soil and actually increase the value of agricultural land over time by revitalizing soil over the course of the panels’ 20- to 25-year life.

Another issue facing agricultural producers in Hawai’i is the undulating topography of the islands that makes much of their land unusable for general agricultural practices. By relegating areas of steep topography for solar panel installation, farmers can increase the amount of usable space on their farms. When combined with grazing animals such as sheep, the productivity of these panels is increased, and the costs of maintenance for the panels is greatly reduced. An analysis of maintenance costs by Nexamp showed that solar grazing saved the company 19% on flat ground, but where panels were built on steep ledges and grazed under, they saved 38% (2). Another benefit to agricultural land use in the state of Hawai’i that could benefit from agrisolar practices would allow farmers to make use of dry, arid lands, such as those seen on windward slopes of the islands or the Kaupo region of Maui. Dr. Barron-Gifford at the University of Arizona found that dry land crops yielded substantially greater production when grown under solar panels: Chiltepin pepper plants yielded three times as much fruit, tomatoes two times as much, and all were seen to require less water than without panel coverage (3). Therefore, combining dryland agriculture with novel agrisolar solutions may prove to have numerous advantages over using either one of these strategies on their own.

Benefits such as these could significantly increase agricultural productivity throughout the Hawai’ian Islands, creating a more sustainable agricultural economy and giving local families a greater opportunity to save money and to access locally grown foods. There are many government programs now that can assist farmers in making the transition from general agriculture to agrisolar, and with the pressing need for sustainability, this may present as one of the most important solutions for Hawai’i’s ongoing economic and environmental difficulties.

References:
1. 2020 Guide to Hawaii Solar Panels I Incentives, Rebates, and Tax Credits https://www.solarreviews.com/solar-incentives/hawaii
2. Lynn Freehill-Maye, 2020, A New Vision for Farming: Chickens, Sheep, and … Solar Panels, Christian Science Monitor, https://www.ecowatch.com/farming-solar-panels-2645855440.html
3. ASGA, 2020, Utility Dive Does a Deep Dive on Solar Grazing, https://solargrazing.org/utility-dive-does-a-deep-dive-on-solar-grazing/
4. Solar Energy Technologies Office, Farmer’s Guide to Going Solar, Depoartment of Energy, https://www.energy.gov/eere/solar/farmers-guide-going-solar
5. Sustainable Farm Agrivoltaic, Oregon State University, https://agsci.oregonstate.edu/newsroom/sustainable-farm-agrivoltaic
6. Dr. Matthias Fripp, 2022, White Paper: Switching the paradigm, Ulupono Initiative, https://www.ulupono.com/project-list/white-paper-switching-the-paradigm/
7. Taylor Freitas, 2022, Hawaii Solar Panels: Pricing and Incentives, Save On Energy, https://www.saveonenergy.com/solar-energy/hawaii/
8. Solar Power in Hawaii, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_in_Hawaii
9. Thomas Heaton, 2022, Hawaii Needs Good Soil To Grow More Food. Here’s How That Can Happen, Honolulu Civil Beat, https://www.civilbeat.org/2022/02/hawaii-needs-good-soil-to-grow-more-food-heres-how-that-can-happen/
10. Maui News, 2022, Hawaii Electric hits 38% renewable energy in 2021; Maui County at 50%, https://mauinow.com/2022/02/09/hawaiian-electric-hits-38-renewable-energy-in-2021-maui-county-at-50/
11. USDA, 2017, Census of Agriculture State Profile, https://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/AgCensus/2017/Online_Resources/County_Profiles/Hawaii/cp99015.pdf

Pollinator Week is an annual celebration in support of pollinator health, initiated and managed by Pollinator Partnership (P2). It is a time to raise awareness for pollinators and spread the word about what we can do to protect them. The great thing about Pollinator Week is that you can celebrate and get involved in multiple ways. Popular events include planting for pollinators, registering for the EPRI – P2 Pollinator Power Party, and so much more. However you choose to celebrate this year, be sure to register your event here , and share your story with us by tagging us on social media using the hashtag #PollinatorWeek.

As the largest organization in the world dedicated exclusively to pollinator issues, P2 provides the highest level of scientific advising and consultation services to support industry, organizations, and agencies plan, execute, and manage pollinator-related projects including solar-habitat co-location. For more information, please visit P2’s Consulting Services page.

Planting for Pollinators: A recipe for success

Pollinators are responsible for one out of three bites of food we consume. They are also the glue that holds the natural world together. Pollinators need your help! By creating pollinator-friendly gardens, you will be providing the vital habitat resources they depend on. Not to mention that pollinator gardens will bring beautiful color displays for you (and your neighbors) to enjoy throughout the seasons!

Combine copious colors and diverse blossoms. Add a splash of sweet-smelling nectar, a pinch of pollen, consecutive blooms, and voila! With these recipes, pollinators are sure to nectar in your gorgeous garden!

Combine copious colors and diverse blossoms. Add a splash of sweet-smelling nectar, a pinch of pollen, consecutive blooms, and voila! With these recipes, pollinators are sure to nectar in your gorgeous garden!

Planning your garden with pollinators in mind is easy with the new Native Pollinator Garden Recipe Cards. These cards are your gateway to native wildflower gardening — they provide step-by-step guidelines for creating your own pollinator gardens, including recommendations for regionally appropriate native plant species, design, and planting tips. With easy-to-follow steps and resources for support, you will be on your way to butterfly bliss in no time.

Find your region’s card and get started today to support our pollinators and give them a place to call home. Native garden cards are available for most U.S. regions, including the Northeast, Northwest, Intermountain West, Great Plains, Midwest, Southwest, Southeast, Alaska, and Texas regions, with California to come. Look for the recommended plant species wherever native plants are sold, such as your local native plant nursery.

These cards were developed through a collaborative effort as part of the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC) Pollinator Habitat Installations Task Force. Download your free Native Pollinator Garden Recipe Card and help support pollinators with us.

Happy pollinator planting!

 

 

 

By Dr. Seeta Sistla, Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences DepartmentCal Poly, San Luis Obispo

With the dual growth of utility-scale solar energy and food production, fallowed agricultural landscapes represent a particularly promising area for the deployment of solar arrays because these systems have the potential to recover with shifts in management practices (Tscharntke et al., 2012;  Wright et al., 2012). California is a national leader of both solar energy development and agricultural production. As water becomes scarcer and costlier, there is growing tension between land-use choices centered around maintaining conventional agricultural systems, transitioning land to renewable energy farming through solar energy development, shifting agricultural strategy (e.g., conventional to conservation farming), or alternate land uses (e.g., housing development).

Placing solar arrays on farmland and other human-modified landscapes represents a promising area to unite energy production with ecological restoration and the sustained conservation of ecologically valuable land. The potential for ecologically improving degraded landscapes with targeted solar array placement will be governed by biogeochemical interactions between abiotic and biotic factors (Figure 1).  Despite the potential ecological and economic synergistic benefits that coupling these land uses could create, the impacts of solar arrays on fallowed farmland and other disturbed landscapes are not well understood.

Figure 1. Microclimatic effects of USSE array on fallowed agricultural landscapes.

To address this deficit, we are studying the direct and indirect effects of utility-scale solar energy in conjunction with sheep grazing on soil and plant characteristics. This work includes collaborating with agricultural stakeholders, undergraduate and graduate students, and solar developers (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Sampling plant and soil conditions at a solar farm on the California Central Coast.

To date, we have found that land in the direct footprint of the array panels hosts a plant community with increased nutrient content and forage quality and maintains a greener plant community for longer periods than the surround area.  These findings likely reflect reduced water stress due to shading in our arid western landscapes, highlighting the potential synergy between carbon-free energy production, rangeland management, and water conservation (Figure 3). Our group continues to investigate these plant and soil responses to array placement at two solar sites on the Central Coast of California and looks forward to opportunities to collaborate with others.

Figure 3. Sheep grazing within one of our solar array study sites. Note the shift in vegetation greenness beyond the array area.

References

Tscharntke, T., Y. Clough, T. C. Wanger, L. Jackson, I. Motzke, I. Perfecto, J. Vandermeer, and A. Whitbread. 2012. Global food security, biodiversity conservation and the future of agricultural intensification. Biological Conservation 151:53–59.

Wright, H. L., I. R. Lake, and P. M. Dolman. 2012. Agriculture-a key element for conservation in the developing world. Conservation Letters 5:11–19.

By: Mariah Rogers, Graduate Student, University of Arizona

Do plants taste different under solar panels? Do they taste better? At the Biosphere 2 Agrivoltaics Learning Lab, we studied just that.

Why Should We Use Agrivoltaics?

Agrivoltaics—the production of agriculture and solar photovoltaic energy on the same parcel of land—is gaining attention as farmers are facing new struggles amid the climate crisis. With agrivoltaics, farmers can reduce water consumption, produce renewable energy, and continue to cultivate their land. However, there is skepticism toward growing crops under solar panels, as farmers may have to change the types of plants that are more shade tolerant.

The Biosphere 2 Agrivoltaics Learning Lab

At the Biosphere 2 Agrivoltaics Learning Lab (B2AVSLL), we study the microclimate—that localized environment under the solar panels— and how plant adaptations occur in the shade of the agrivoltaic system. Some of the adaptations that plants make in the agrivoltaic microclimates include differences in yield, changes to plant morphology (leaf size, fruit shape and color), and alterations in metabolites. These adaptations may cause differences in how people perceive these crops. To study these differences, we grow a slew of different crops underneath solar panels.

We grow tomatoes, basil, potatoes, beans, squash, and lavender, just to name a few. While some of the plants grown at B2AVSLL are heat tolerant, crops grown in this region of the U.S. still require a lot of water. With agrivoltaics, we can reduce water consumption and still have a good yield. So, it is in our best interest to figure out if they would be successful both for the environment and in the market.

The Study Goals

To understand how these crops would do in the market, we conducted a consumer sensory study at the University of Arizona. The three goals of the study were to: (1) to understand if people perceived a difference between agrivoltaic-grown crops vs. crops grown in full sunlight (control); (2) determine if people preferred agrivoltaic-grown crops compared to control; and (3) discover if people were willing to pay more for crops grown in agrivoltaic conditions.

A total of 105 people participated in the study. Panelists were subjected to different conditions and samples, based on the site and the day they were tasting samples. Tomato and basil, potato and bean, and potato and squash were tasted by panelists.

Does Agrivoltaics Change the Flavor of Plants?

To understand if there was a difference between agrivoltaic- and control-grown samples, we used a triangle test where participants were given three samples with a random three-digit code; two of the samples were the same and one was different. We then asked the participants to pick which sample was the “odd one out.”

So, did agrivoltaics change the flavor of the crops? Yes and no. Tomato, bean, and squash samples (all fruits) were perceived as different by tasters. Basil and potato samples were not perceived as significantly different by tasters.

Does Agrivoltaics Make Plants Taste Better?

To understand if there was a preference between samples from the two growth conditions, we then conducted a paired preference test. We gave tasters two samples with random three-digit codes and asked if they preferred one sample more than another, or if they preferred neither sample.

Unsurprisingly, the results were mixed. People significantly preferred beans grown in the control setting over those grown in agrivoltaics. In addition, agrivoltaic-grown basil, potato, and squash samples were preferred by tasters.

Are People Willing to Pay More for Agrivoltaic-grown Produce?

After the triangle and preference tests, we asked participants if they would be willing to pay more or less for their favorite samples. Overall, we found that participants were willing to pay the same or more for all samples after they knew that their favorite samples were grown in agrivoltaic systems.

What Does This Mean for Farmers and Investors?

Because consumers can’t tell a significant difference in vegetable samples, and they preferred basil, potato, and squash, it may be in farmers’ best interest to grow these crops, especially in the desert. By marketing the produce as grown under solar arrays, and educating consumers about agrivoltaics, farmers may be able to sell their produce for slightly more at farmers markets.

What Does This Mean for You as a Consumers?

Buying for foods that are grown using agrivoltaics means supporting solar energy generation through purchasing fruits or vegetables. If you already go to the farmers market to buy fruits and vegetables, you may want to consider buying agrivoltaic-grown produce. If you want something that tastes like what you already buy from the farmers market, then you may want to buy vegetables. If you are looking for a different tasting product, you may want to buy fruits grown under agrivoltaics. You can be the judge whether you prefer one growth condition over another.