by Emily Griffith of Renewable NorthWest
Renewable Northwest and a small workgroup are preparing an update to the 2019 report, Dual-Use Solar in the Pacific Northwest: A Way Forward, in response to the changing landscape of agrivoltaics (also referred to as dual-use solar) in the region. This blog will explain the need for a fresh look at dual-use in the Pacific Northwest and describe some of the themes important to the conversation.
Why Do We Need to Revisit Dual-use Solar?
The Biden Administration recently set a goal of reaching 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035. Many states have similar requirements of reaching net-zero GHG emissions. To reach these targets, extensive buildout of solar energy will be a cornerstone of the evolving energy grid. Dual-use solar allows farmers to use their land both as farmland and as a site to generate electricity (and additional income).
In Renewable Northwest’s 2019 report, staff explored the potential and practicality of dual-use solar by looking at advantages and disadvantages, policies, project examples, and best practices. Given the increased attention agrivoltaics has received recently, including federal research investments and policy changes, it’s time to revisit the report. The updated report (to be completed in spring 2023) will explore recent updates in agrivoltaics. Here is what you can expect:
What Has Not Changed?
The conversation around dual-use in the Pacific Northwest is still in early stages. To date, the region still does not have many dual-use projects, but some solar and pollinator projects do exist. For example, Pine Gate Renewables’ Eagle Point Solar is a 13-MW solar and pollinator project located on 41 acres in Medford, Oregon. Previously, the land was used for dairy grazing. Now, the site contains a diverse seed mix of pollinating flowers with over 30 types of native flowers and grasses. Old Sol Apiaries is a business based in southern Oregon that provides bees for honey makers and commercial pollinators. Bees forage on native pollinator plants under Pine Gate’s panels. They also provide bees at other solar-pollinator locations, such as a 73-acre project in Clackamas County, Oregon.
There are a few reasons why dual-use is still not as widely used in this region as it is in others. For instance, there are still policy barriers. In fact, every year there are regular efforts pushing back against solar development by legislators in the Northwest. For example, in Oregon, the Land Conservation and Development Commission issued a rulemaking in 2019 limiting the amount of land to 12 acres that a farmer could use for a solar project located on high-value farmland. However, there was potential for counties to issue ordinances that could increase to 20 acres for dual-use projects. The difficulty with this rulemaking was that it sunsetted after two and a half years, and counties did not have much of a chance to develop an ordinance before the sunset. Additionally, counties in Washington state are continuing to develop ordinances that limit renewable energy development, including potential dual-use projects.
Agrivoltaics continues to be a challenging environment. The idea of agrivoltaics originated in Europe and is just gaining momentum in the U.S. A recent article by Jeff Turrentine at the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) states that in a number of Asian and European countries, agrivoltaics has gained much more ground. For instance, in Japan, there are 2,000 agrivoltaic installations, whereas in the U.S., there are less than 50 accounted for. The U.S. is not as far along as others for a few reasons:
- There are significant up-front costs and barriers to entry.
- Research on large-scale solar with crops and grazing is still considered to be in early stages.
- There is limited transmission for projects to connect to. Projects most often need to be located near the electricity load (demand).
- Many farmers are still uneasy about the idea of combining solar and agriculture.
What Has Changed?
While there still are not many dual-use projects in the Northwest, we have seen more interest in the idea of advancing dual-use. New research continues to be published on the advances in dual-use technology and solar-crop compatibility. Some recent studies even suggest that, under the protection of solar panels, certain crops may grow stronger and longer that may otherwise succumb to higher temperatures more readily.
Another interesting Oregon State University study found that there is a symbiotic relationship between solar panels and the crops that grow beneath them. Crops exposed to increased levels of sunlight require more water. With solar panels providing shade and cooler temperatures, less water is lost to evaporation and the plants require less water from irrigation. But perhaps the more interesting finding is that the panels were found to perform better with the crops growing beneath them. The crops beneath the panels contributed to keeping the local environment cooler. With cooler temperatures, the panels operate more efficiently, generating about 10% more electricity than panels installed over gravel.
There are additional efforts and funding being devoted to studying and implementing dual-use projects. Last December, DOE announced $8 million in funding for projects that integrate solar energy production with farming. An energy.gov article states that the funding is intended to reduce barriers to both community and utility-scale solar energy deployment while also maximizing benefits to farmers and local communities. The six states (and the District of Columbia) selected for funding are not located in the Pacific Northwest region. However, the studies will likely produce valuable knowledge that can be integrated here, as well. Some of the topics pertain to socioeconomics, technical aspects, outreach strategies, deployment resources, sustainability, and markets in rural North America.
Additionally, in 2021, the USDA awarded the University of Illinois $10 million to determine the types of crops that are best suited to pair with solar. The research sites include Illinois, Arizona, and Colorado.
With already cost-competitive solar bolstered by the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, solar development is expected to increase dramatically. Hopefully, this means we will see more dual-use projects. And, the increased interest in studying agrivoltaics from the DOE and USDA could perhaps be a sign federal aid is on the way for farmers interested in agrivoltaics. Right now, there is a real need for additional mechanisms and incentives for those interested in pursuing dual-use projects in particular.
How Is the Region Reacting to the Prospect of Dual-use?
While dual-use solar may not be a silverbullet solution to siting solar on farmland, it does offer a tool of flexibility for farmers. This tool can provide additional income that keeps farmers farming and keeps farmland as farmland. The previously mentioned NRDC article states that many people are optimistic about the idea of expanding agrivoltaic facilities with options to sustain farming, potential to bring in new farmers, and stabilize land for crops that could otherwise go to more permanent types of development.
There are still many other areas of interest that updated report may investigate. For instance, we need to know: Four years later, where are we? Have many projects been implemented since 2019 and how are they doing? Are projects happening practically? What are the dos and don’ts of building a dual-use project? What are the many other studies saying? What are the farmers concerned about?
The U.S. is looking to develop about five times the solar we have to date over the next 10 years, and that solar will require land (at least for its useful life). But new solar buildouts don’t have to result in conflicts. Many think agrivoltaics is a key solution, especially when it comes to avoiding potential conflicts between energy and food production. And with more research and funding being devoted to the idea, dual-use is becoming less of a research question and more of a reality.
If you would like to be notified when the final and updated dual-use report is available, please contact Emily at firstname.lastname@example.org