Tag Archive for: community agrisolar

Written for the AgriSolar Clearinghouse by Sarah Bendok, Growing Green 

I am a rising sophomore at Phoenix Country Day School. Since I was young, I have always loved gardening. Every summer, I visit my grandma’s village and work in her garden leisurely while observing other farmers in the community tirelessly performing back-breaking labor just to put food on the table. This love for gardening continued while the images of these farmers more vividly resonated in my memory. As I grew older, I started volunteering at community gardens in Arizona, such as Spaces of Opportunity, a 19-acre urban farm that promotes healthy food choices while allowing low-income individuals to grow and sell their produce. I also have volunteered with Tiger Mountain Foundation, an organization dedicated to giving jobs and empowering people in low-income communities through community gardens in South Phoenix. While volunteering, I saw how much effort and hard work these farmers put in just to take home meager earnings. At the same time, these farmers struggle with worsening environmental conditions and decreasing crop yields. Volunteering at community gardens made me realize there is a whole story behind where our food comes from, involving people making sacrifices to feed our population. I will never forget the smile on a farmer’s face when he harvested 10 pounds of pepper. What if I could improve his working conditions? What if I could decrease the number of resources he uses for agriculture so he can earn more profit? What if I could plant the seeds of a more equitable, sustainable agricultural system in South Phoenix? 

Workers rely only on their crops for food and income at the community gardens where I have volunteered. Since they do not have the money for the same technologies that large-scale farms have, they depend on their natural resources to help them grow their crops through agroforestry and other natural practices. Instead of destroying the biodiversity to expand their farms, they integrate different trees, shrubs, and other plants to improve soil quality, reduce water use, and use them as natural pesticides to drive insects and other pests away. By integrating these natural tools, they could increase their crop yield. Working at these gardens and learning how they grow their crops, I became interested in how we can apply these concepts to all farms and expand the use of widespread and futuristic, sustainable technologies.  

University of Arizona graduate student Nesrine Rouini (left) and Sarah Bendok at Biosphere 2’s agrivoltaic solar array. Photo: NCAT 

This interest made me want to contribute to making agriculture more sustainable, especially at the community gardens where I have volunteered. So, I created a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called Growing Green to help fund and implement eco-friendly technologies at these farms. Our primary goal at Growing Green is to promote technologies at the intersection of agriculture and sustainability. One of the projects I have been working on through Growing Green is creating an agrivoltaics system at Spaces of Opportunity. I reached out to AgriSolar Clearinghouse, which allowed me to be in their peer-to-peer mentoring program by connecting me with Professor Greg Barron-Gafford and his team from the University of Arizona, Nesrine Rouini, and Alyssa Salazar. They have provided me with mentorship on the design of the agrivoltaics system and phenology data collection. In addition, they invited me to an agrivoltaics farm-to-table event at Biosphere 2, where I presented my project to the attendees and could sample dishes prepared with the vegetables grown under solar panels. The food was amazing, and the vegetables did not taste any different from the ones that are not grown with agrivoltaics. Separately, I have worked with Fundusol LLC, which has also helped me design the agrivoltaics system by entering the location of the system and crops to be planted into their proprietary algorithm to determine the optimal angle and spacing of the solar panels. Because of these mentorships, I have been able to teach everything I learned to farmers, solar developers, and others in my community about the benefits agrivoltaics and the significant and positive changes it could bring if implemented.  

To build this 5-KW agrivoltaic system, I connected with FOREnergy and Titan Solar for the installation of the solar array. In June, we had the site surveyed and are in the process of submitting permits to the City of Phoenix. The anticipated cost of this project is $20,000, and I am working on getting donations to be able to finance this project through community events, presentations, grants, and my website.   

Site survey with members of Spaces of Opportunity, Titan Solar, and Sarah Bendok to map out the system. Photo: Growing Green 

Separately, I was able to build a smaller agrivoltaics system over a raised garden bed at Spaces of Opportunity with donations from different local organizations to educate the community on the benefits of agrivoltaics while doing small-scale research. I have planted two types of cherry tomatoes and chiltepin peppers in this bed, but I plan to test crops native to Arizona in this location later on. I am also in the process of building another agrivoltaics raised garden bed at Garden of Tomorrow. There, I hope to plant a variety of crops that have not yet been tested with agrivoltaics to be able to continue to learn about which crops benefit from this technology. Although these beds are small-scale, I have started collecting data and educating the community on agrivoltaics by involving adult volunteers from the Desert Botanical Garden and employees from Tiger Mountain Foundation. I have connected with teachers from a low-income school near Spaces of Opportunity to engage students on these projects to help them learn more about sustainability within farming and renewable energy. 

Dan Mullaney from FOREnergy and Sarah Bendok installing the garden bed solar panel at Spaces of Opportunity. Photo: Growing Green

Without the guidance and support of Stacie Peterson and Anna Adair from AgriSolar Clearinghouse, I would not have been able to come this far with my projects. I am very grateful for the opportunities and connections they have provided me with and hope to continue to promote agrivoltaics alongside them. 

If you would like to support, partner with, or collaborate on this initiative, please email me at contactus@growing-green.org or visit our website.

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.