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.

Energy Program Director