By Rob Davis, Connexus Energy

Seven years after designing our first solar array, more than 20 million deep-rooted and pollinator-friendly plants across more than 150 acres are helping us control costs while maximizing local benefits for our community, resulting in national recognition and hometown goodwill — but it almost didn’t happen. Now, our standard practice is to require pollinator-friendly ground cover across all of the large-scale solar arrays that feed into our grid.

Connexus Energy is Minnesota’s largest electric cooperative and one of the 15 largest retail electric cooperatives nationwide, serving more than 320,000 people (141,000 meters) in parts of eight Minnesota counties. By embracing innovations including grid-scale battery storage, more than $25 million of local solar generation, customer-centric demand response programs, and automated metering infrastructure, Connexus has kept retail rates to our members flat for five consecutive years, while progressing with greening the grid.

Our first solar array—built in 2014 immediately adjacent to our headquarters—was initially designed with gravel, but a change set us on a different course. Working with one of our co-op members, Prairie Restorations of Princeton, Minnesota, a low-growing meadow seed mix was designed and implemented. Making productive use of the land under and around a ground-mounted solar array fits with one of the seven cooperative principles — Concern for Community. After a year or two of growing in, the site’s beneficial plants were crowding out weed species, reducing mowing costs, and making a positive impression with the community.

Connexus Energy’s HQ Solar Array Built in 2014. Photo: Rob Davis

Having now partnered in the development of four additional grid-scale solar projects—two of which include 15 MW of battery storage—Connexus’ decision to proactively ask for productive use of the land under and around the panels is continuing to pay dividends:

  • Last fall one of Minnesota’s award-winning filmmakers teamed up with Prairie Restorations on a short documentary, Pollinators, Prairie, and Power, which included Connexus Energy CEO Greg Ridderbusch. Click HERE to watch it.
  • The Associated Press recognized Connexus Energy’s leadership in solar land-use practices in a major news story that generated more than 150 million media impressions nationwide. Connexus was the only electric utility included in the expansive story that also included interviews with scientists from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The story, “Bees, Sheep, Crops: Solar Developers Tout Multiple Benefits,” appeared in more than 240 media outlets in 41 states and territories.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Granholm highlighted Connexus Energy, sharing an extraordinary Minnesota Public Radio story about co-op innovation and use of local solar to keep rates flat. 

  • Research on one of Connexus’ solar projects by NREL, the University of Minnesota, and nonprofit partners is quantifying substantial stormwater benefits of deep-rooted ground cover. The PV-SMaRT project is monitoring and collecting water-quality data from five U.S. solar sites with different land and climate conditions. “The end goal is to develop research-driven tools and best practices that can be used by permitting authorities and PV developers to make more informed decisions on stormwater management measures that are tailored to the true impacts of a PV array on the environment,” says Jennifer Daw, principal investigator for the PV-SMaRT project and Group Manager for Strategy, Policy & Implementation at NREL.

By Victorian Smart, NCAT Energy Program Assistant

If you dream of owning land someday, you’ve probably also experienced apprehension about the process of finding and buying the land. This is the reality of land acquisition – it is financially and mentally challenging to start the process. A survey conducted by the Young Farmer’s Coalition found that access to land is the greatest challenge for young farmers and ranchers. Land ownership, particularly for agriculture, can also be complicated by competition with development companies. 

In recent years, many Americans’ desire to shift from urban living to living on their own land has increased. In the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, that desire has become stronger, as stay-at-home orders and job changes brought new perspective to people’s lives. Additionally, land seekers want to participate in affordable, sustainable agriculture and renewable energy options as awareness for  local solutions for climate change mitigation and adaptability grows.  

Land Links

 A LandLink or FarmLink site is a useful tool if you are wishing to find land or if you are a landowner wishing to list land. LandLink tools are available for nearly all U.S. states. When you visit your state’s website, you will create a profile as a Land Seeker or a Land Owner. At that point you may make listings, search for available property in your area, connect with people, and access other resources. All LandLinks operate under the same goal—to help beginning farmers access affordable land, help established farmers stay competitive and expand, and help landowners find the right person to manage their land and one day transfer their land to. The Farmland Information Center of American Farmland Trust (AFT) has an extensive list of all state LandLink programs. 

Tips For Getting Started 

If you are ready to begin the process of finding and buying land but are unsure where to start, AFT breaks it down into four steps:  

  1. Assess Your Readiness – Ask yourself about both your personal goals and business goals. Personal goals include goals for the whole family, your income, and a work-life balance. Consider business goals, like what you specifically want to do with your land, marketability for what you have to offer that comes from your land, and desire to expand in the future. AFT’s Farmland Information Center has several worksheets to help you make these assessments. 
  1. Think About your Financial Position – Consider your current financial position and your future earning potential. Make a record of your assets, debts, income, and expenses. Make projections of what your business could earn, if you need a second income, and if this can pay off any loans you might have. Check out AFT’s Financial Readiness Assessment to get started.  
  1. Explore Land Access Options – Besides inheritance or receiving a gift, buying and leasing are the primary ways to access land. Several options are available for leasing, including Cash Lease, Crop Share, and a Long-Term Lease. Buying options include Lease with Option to Buy, Fee Title Purchase with Seller Financing, and Fee Title Purchase with Agricultural Conservation Easement. A conservation easement prevents development rights on the land and is used if landowners wish to keep the land as agriculture production in perpetuity. See the National Center for Appropriate Technology’s detailed description of each of these access options, along with AFT’s toolkit on leasing and toolkit on buying. 
  1. Connect with Ag Service Providers – AFT highlights the importance of connecting with agriculture service providers throughout the land-seeking process. Finding land can be time-consuming and costly, but you can find much support from networks like AFT’s Farmland Information Center, Cooperative Extension Offices at Land Grant Universities, and Farm Link programs.  

Other Helpful Resources 

Since energy is essential for agriculture production, more is being done to make energy generation and consumption more sustainable for farms. Also, financial opportunities for implementing renewable-energy projects are becoming more available as states pursue net-zero goals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers a grant for agriculture producers and small businesses. There are also many state and local tax incentives available for landowners and land managers pursuing renewable energy. When looking for land, consider your renewable energy goals and what is required to get the infrastructure on your land. For example, if your goal is to install photovoltaic arrays for solar energy production, you’ll need to assess your land’s topography, flood zones, existing houses or buildings, and amount of sunlight you have across your property. Consult U.S. DOE’s Farmers Guide to Going Solar for more information about installing solar energy on your property. Geothermal systems for farm buildings and greenhouses are another renewable energy option for maintaining consistent temperatures throughout hot and cold seasons. Some systems are ground-sourced and require underground installation, so careful consideration of your operation’s needs and land features is important before excavation.  

The resources provided here include more detail for the land seeking and buying process, such as business planning, writing a good lease, land policy, and renewable energy ownership structures. If you have any questions, comments, or would like us to connect you with someone in your area, please reach out to us at agrisolar@ncat.org.  

Written By: Cody Smith

As communities across the nation continue to embrace a future powered by clean energy, new solar farms are offering an opportunity to pair economic development and conservation goals. As landowners, project developers, and local officials work to enhance the value of these new project sites for the communities hosting them, investments in native vegetation can open the door for a variety of opportunities to grow the local economy while simultaneously promoting clean water, soil health, and wildlife habitat.

Solar energy is rapidly expanding in many states as utilities and consumers seek cheaper, cleaner alternatives to meet their needs. In fact, in 2020 the utility-scale solar industry grew by 26%, fueling the rise of renewables to be the second most prevalent source of electricity generation in the U.S. that year. With increased solar deployment, many communities are enjoying new jobs and tax revenue. In fact, across the Midwest, the solar industry employed nearly 37,000 workers as of 2019.

Source: Amplifying Clean Energy with Conservation: Part One: Pollinator-Friendly Solar. Center for Rural Affairs.

As more project sites are selected and leases are negotiated between landowners and project developers, prioritizing these investments can ensure that these new sites add value to all stakeholders in the process. Investments in native vegetation have been shown to increase the populations of pollinating insects, such as honey bees and native bees, by as much as three and a half times more than sites without such investments, according to the Iowa State University STRIPS Project. Meanwhile, vulnerable birds, such as the sedge wren in the Midwest, can utilize these new investments as much-needed habitat, helping protect wildlife biodiversity.

Well-maintained native vegetation is also an effective practice for improving water quality. Even modest investments in perennial native vegetation have demonstrated a 60 percent reduction in nitrogen loss and a 90 percent reduction in phosphorus loss to surrounding lakes, rivers, and streams. Retaining those nutrients on-site helps prevent the damaging impacts of harmful algal blooms in the watershed and improves overall soil health.

A common concern among landowners and residents debating whether or not utility-scale solar is a good fit for their community is the loss of productive agricultural land for this purpose. Local officials and developers should not stray away from these challenging conversations, though it is important to highlight these sites as an opportunity to continue agricultural production, even if it looks different than a traditional crop rotation of corn and soybeans. By introducing livestock grazing with a robust rotational grazing plan, farmers can both continue to diversify their incomes and grow the local economy without minimizing the positive environmental impacts described above.

In all, investments in native vegetation on solar project sites have shown they can both complement economic development goals and improve environmental conditions for the surrounding community, adding significant value to the projects. As developers, local officials, and landowners continue to contemplate whether or not pollinator-friendly solar is a good fit for them, this webinar titled Native Vegetation + Solar Energy from the Center for Rural Affairs can serve as a resource for planning for, managing, and implementing these types of projects.

By: Wexus Technologies

Here’s a dirty secret: growers, processors, homeowners, and commercial businesses are spending too much money on solar energy installations. When many people think about their energy usage and getting relief from high electric bills, the first thing that comes to mind is to call a solar company for a quote. I’m here to tell you, pause and take a deep breath before making that call…

Don’t get me wrong, harnessing the power of the sun is an incredible technology. And the revolution of clean, renewable energy will help our future generations thrive for years to come. But the challenges with actually installing solar power reside in the upfront costs and return on investment.

If you call a solar company first, here’s what’s going to happen: they’ll take a look at your current energy bills and usage, and then size a photovoltaic (PV) system to match and offset your current energy usage. No doubt you will also want to size the system to match your usage, as the solar energy is cheaper than the energy you’d purchase from your local utility.

And keep in mind that solar is a 20 – to 30-year investment. So, if you purchase a solar PV system based on today’s usage, you could end up oversizing the system. And more importantly, you could overspend for unnecessary solar panels, particularly if your energy usage decreases, or energy prices change.

It’s the equivalent of flood irrigating a crop field for 24 hours straight, when drip irrigating for a few hours might do just as well, or better. So why do it the same way with energy?

What should you do instead?

Here’s a better approach to addressing your high electric bills: focus on the low-hanging fruit first. Smaller, lower-cost energy efficiency investments can have a larger impact on your energy usage and, ultimately, your bottom line. So, what are some examples of agriculture  efficiency projects with high impact and high return on investment? Consider these:

  • Selecting and continuously tracking your most cost-effective utility rate plan based on your actual energy usage
  • Monitoring and maintaining irrigation pump efficiency above the industry –standard of 60%
  • Irrigating during less expensive “off-peak hours” to avoid power demand surcharges
  • Installing variable frequency drives (VFDs)
  • Upgrading insulation and windows at cold-storage and food-processing buildings
  • Installing LED lighting, lighting control systems, and daylight and motion sensors
  • Upgrading to high-efficiency HVAC systems

The Wexus team calls this whole-farm, energy-saving approach “Reduce Before You Produce.” Before considering a solar PV installation, we highly recommend a “whole-farm” energy audit to determine a baseline of your historical usage, costs, and energy-consuming equipment across your entire farming operation.

For example, we’ve analyzed thousands of irrigation pumps. If one of your irrigation pumps is operating at 45% efficiency and the industry standard recommended level is 60%, you could be wasting tens of thousands of dollars every year. Simple preventive maintenance or repairs could cost a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars. However, they will be quickly paid back through energy savings in just a few months.

Now multiply these efficiency gains across all the irrigation pumps across your farm. Five pumps, 10 pumps, 20 pumps, 50 pumps, or more? The savings multiply as your operation grows. In this case, not only do you spend less money to generate kilowatt-hour (kWh) savings, but you also reduce the size and costs of any solar PV system, should you choose to install one.

After you’ve harvested your low-hanging “energy fruit” and driven the maximum energy savings possible across your farm, then it could be time to call the solar company to properly size a system for you.

Not convinced yet?

Here is a real-world example:

Above is a real-world example of one of our customer’s solar PV system investment costs before (and after) implementing energy efficiency projects. In this case, a farmer was leaving over $160,000 on the table by oversizing their solar PV system. What would you do with another $160,000 in operating income for your business?


By Heidi Kolbeck-Urlacher, Senior Policy Associate, Center for Rural Affairs 

On a chilly September afternoon, a flock of Targhee/Rambouillet cross sheep quietly wander the grounds of an 18-acre solar garden site in southwestern Minnesota. The sheep are fulfilling a duty known as solar grazing, which uses livestock to manage vegetation at solar sites. 

Replacing traditional mowing, solar grazing offers numerous environmental and financial benefits. 

“Environmentally, you’re allowing a diverse plant community to grow, which increases soil health over time, reduces erosion, and increases pollinator habitat,” said Audrey Lomax, manager of the solar grazing program at Minnesota Native Landscapes. “Economically, farmers can supplement their income and grow their business, and developers see a cost savings as they spend less over time to manage the sites.” 

The rapid growth of the solar energy industry means more acres of land will be needed to host these projects. 

“Whether people like solar or not, it’s a rapidly growing reality, and the land that is used must be managed,” said Trent Hendricks, who operates Cabriejo Ranch in West Plains, Missouri, and provides regenerative grazing services to utility-scale solar farms. “Grazing provides numerous benefits that can’t be realized through paving or mowing. This includes carbon sequestration, increasing biodiversity, providing habitat for wildlife like ground-nesting birds, and keeping land in agricultural use by supporting lamb production.” 

The sheep at the site are owned by Matt Brehmer, a beginning farmer from Brookings, South Dakota. Matt recently bought a farm and purchased livestock a year ago. His pasture won’t support both cows and sheep, so working as a solar grazier gives him additional pasture opportunities and helps support his business. 

“I heard about solar grazing from another farmer who was doing it,” Matt said. “After trying it for a season, I plan to do it again and would recommend it to others.” 

Audrey said solar grazing is something more farmers should consider. 

“This is a high-value service that can allow farmers to grow their business, and even their flock, without land,” she said. “This is especially true for beginning farmers who often don’t have infrastructural support or access to land.” 

As the solar industry continues to grow, practices like solar grazing can play an important role in ensuring clean energy, environmental, and agricultural goals can be achieved together. Some states, such as Massachusetts and New Jersey, have created policies to incentivize the dual-use of solar with agriculture. 

“If we are going to promote solar as an energy solution, we have a responsibility to also ensure good land management,” Trent said. “With grazing, we can keep animals on the land and keep it in food production.” 

by Diane Brandt

When I think about dual-use solar, I think about why this approach is a good idea for the Pacific Northwest. In a region that enjoys wild, open areas, it would be easy to assume that there’s “plenty of space” for building solar. Of course, as we look closer, we realize that there are many uses and users of these spaces and lands – between agriculture, conservation, and the plentiful ways to recreate in the great outdoors of the Pacific Northwest. Oregon and Washington have rich agricultural economies and histories that are entwined with their natural resources and beauty. As a native Oregonian myself, I recognize the connection I have and value I place on these pristine spaces and activities. Protecting those spaces and activities is important to many. 

Equally important to many is meeting our climate goals through reducing our use of carbon-emitting energy resources. The impacts of greenhouse gas emissions on our climate in the Pacific Northwest have been more stark – in one year we experienced ice storms that knocked out power around the region, endured an extreme heat dome that killed hundreds of people, continued to deal with extreme drought, and watched another destructive wildfire season that saw fires so intense they created their own weather systems and shut down interstate power lines. Moving away from carbon-intense energy sources to fill our electricity grid is a near-term solution within our grasp to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions we create. 

So, back to why dual-use is relevant in the Pacific Northwest, it becomes a question of balance.  As Oregon and Washington move toward their clean energy goals, considering ways to balance the building of renewable energy projects – especially wind and solar – with these existing land uses and conservation values are important. The conversation around dual-use solar is still evolving in the Pacific Northwest. From a handful of existing projects in Oregon that co-locate pollinators or native vegetation with solar arrays, to ongoing research at Oregon State University on the benefits of dual use, dual-use solar is still in its early stages.

As this is a newer concept for those in the region, it is safe to assume that opinions on dual use are mixed – with some viewing it with optimism in offering another way to generate clean energy while keeping land in “production,” yet others are skeptical of the effectiveness considering potential costs or the practicality of pairing solar with intense agriculture practices.  Regardless, the region is looking at substantial renewableenergy projects in the near future to meet its clean energy goals, and exploring all potential solutions is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.

Back in 2019, Renewable Northwest staff saw the relevance of dual-use solar as a way to continue the conversation around solar in the region, and worked with Spark Northwest through the Solar Plus initiative – a project funded by the Department of Energy through the Washington State Department of Commerce – to create a report on dual-use solar and the Pacific Northwest. The report aims to explore the types of dual-use solar, the advantages and disadvantages of each, examples, and policies and best practices for dual use. The report does recognize that dual-use applications may not be suited for all situations, but it equally explores the areas where it could be a win-win for farmers and landowners alike.

Through exploring specific examples, the report does highlight some of the benefits of dual-use solar that go beyond the climate-friendly gains. One of these benefits is the potential for “off-farm” income that allows farmers to continue their agricultural activities through circumstances in which they would previously operate at a loss. Not only does this help keep farmers farming and producing crops that sustain our region, but it also keeps agricultural land as agricultural land.

However, as this report points out, the policy pathways in Washington and Oregon for dual use are unclear if not restrictive, as is the case in Oregon which limits dual-use solar to 12 acres (as of January 1, 2022) on high-value farmland. While I’m not suggesting that dual-use solar will meet all of the region’s clean energy needs, it certainly offers one way to contribute toward those goals while also offering co-benefits through enhancing farmers’ incomes, rehabilitating native vegetation or supporting pollinators, providing shade for grazing herds, to name a few. 

So, why do I think dual-use solar is a good option for the Pacific Northwest? It not only offers gains toward a cleaner electricity grid, but it allows for flexibility in solar installation that can respond to the landowner or farmers’ needs. It offers us another tool to answer our climate concerns – and we’re going to need all the tools we can get!

The author is the Oregon Policy Manager at Renewable Northwest, a regional nonprofit advocating for the equitable and responsible decarbonization of the electricity grid with members from the renewable energy industry, and environmental and consumer groups. 

The Associated Press is reporting on the benefits of agrisolar development, that is, the co-location of solar panels on appropriate farm land.

“There’s lots of spaces where solar could be integrated with really innovative uses of land,” said Brendan O’Neill, a University of Michigan environmental scientist who’s monitoring how planting at a new 1,752-panel facility in Cadillac, Michigan, stores carbon.

Elsewhere, solar installations host sheep that reduce need for mowing. And researchers are experimenting with crop growing beneath solar panels, while examining other potential upsides: preventing soil erosion, and conserving and cleansing water.

The Associated Press

As the AP reports, the U.S. Department of Energy is searching for the best agrisolar ideas in a project it has called InSPIRE.

The U.S. has about 2,500 solar operations on the electric grid, most generating one to five megawatts, according to the Energy Information Administration. A five-megawatt facility needs around 40 acres (16 hectares). While some occupy former industrial sites, larger installations often take space once used for row crops.

Depending on how quickly the nation switches to renewable electricity, up to 10 million acres (4 million hectares) could be needed for solar by 2050 — more than the combined area of Massachusetts and New Jersey, an analysis by Argonne found. Solar developers and researchers hope projects with multiple land uses will ease pushback from rural residents who don’t want farmland taken out of production or consider solar panels a blight.

“We need healthy agricultural communities, but we also need renewable energy,” said Jordan Macknick, the renewable energy lab’s lead analyst for InSPIRE.

The Associated Press

Jordan Macknick and others featured in this article including Greg Barron-Gafford, Rob Davis, and Lexie Hain are partners of the AgriSolar Clearinghouse.

Read the full story, here.

Solar developments are expected to cover 3 million acres of land in the next ten years. Under traditional solar development, these lands could be taken over for energy-only production and this could impact pollinator habitat, food production, soil health, and cultural landscapes. But, there is tremendous opportunity for low-impact solar development that is complementary with sustainable agriculture. This co-location, when designed and managed with best practices, can increase pollinator habitat, promote native species, and include grazing and specialty crop production, all while diversifying revenue streams and increasing public acceptance.

In our sustainable energy and agriculture work at the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), we have a long reputation as a trusted, practical connector. We are a non-profit with a mission to help people build resilient communities through local and sustainable solutions that reduce poverty, strengthen self-reliance, and protect natural resources. As a part of this mission, we sought and received funding from the Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office to develop an information-sharing, relationship-building, clearinghouse for all things agrisolar.  

Our incredible network of partners and stakeholders includes the leading agrisolar experts in the country. They hail from national energy laboratories, the Smithsonian, universities, solar industry, agriculture, pollinator organizations, solar grazing associations, and rural policy centers. Together, we hope to promote the co-location of solar and agriculture in a way that is beneficial to both.

In coming months, this website will showcase practical, affordable agrisolar solutions through case studies, peer mentoring, field trips, best practices, webinars, podcasts, and peer-reviewed research. Our online forum will provide a place to connect in real-time with NCAT specialists, partners, stakeholders, and agrisolar enthusiasts. I hope you’ll find inspiration, information, and a community in these pages. And I hope we can learn from you as we grow. Please tell us your story.

STACIE PETERSON
Energy Program Director