Tag Archive for: solar farming

By: Andrew Valainis

Director, Montana Renewable Energy Association (MREA)

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the cost to install solar has dropped more than 60% over the last decade alone, with the average residential system costing half of what it did in 2010.[1] Still, solar photovoltaic systems are a large investment, and the up-front cost can be challenging for many Americans. In this blog post, I will explore some of the financing and financial incentive options available to help pay for these systems. I use Montana’s available options as examples, though financing and incentive programs will vary state to state.

One of the most popular and most important incentives in the U.S. is the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC). The ITC is a federal income tax credit that you can claim against the cost of the installation. This credit applies to the total cost of the installation, including labor. If you decide to install a storage system at the same time as the solar system, then you can include that cost as well. There is no upper dollar limit on how much the credit is worth. The ITC was originally set at 30% but stepped down to 26% in 2020 and will continue to step down over the next few years. In 2020, the phase-out schedule was extended for two years as part of the spending bill that Congress negotiated. The ITC will remain at 26% until 2023, when it will step down to 22% for all customers. In 2024, it will expire for individuals, while stepping down permanently to 10% for businesses.

Federal ITC Step Down 2020 Extension.

Another great option is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Rural Energy for American Program” (REAP). The REAP program provides grants – not loans – to qualifying agricultural and small businesses for up to 25% of the cost of a renewable energy project, up to $500,000. Energy efficiency grants and loan guarantees are also available through the program. This is an excellent option for agricultural producers. USDA has local offices all around the country, and I highly recommend calling them to ask about the program and how you can benefit.

In 2022, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which provides a large amount of funding for the installation of renewable energy technologies. Details are still coming out about several of the different funding opportunities, which may apply to businesses or individuals. These are worth monitoring for further information. You can learn more here.

Some states offer state-level programs specifically supporting the development of solar and other renewable energy technologies. In Montana, we have the Alternative Energy Revolving Loan Program (AERLP). This program was established by the Montana Legislature in 2001 and provides zero-down, low-interest loans of up to $40,000 to individuals, small businesses, nonprofit organizations, and government entities in order to increase investments in alternative energy systems and energy conservation measures in Montana. The program, managed by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s Energy Office, has financed more than 500 renewable energy installations across the state since its first loan in 2003. States also often offer tax incentives or rebates for renewable energy installations, which are great options to help lower the up-front cost of the installation. Reach out to your state energy office or solar advocacy group to ask what options your state offers.

Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs are becoming more popular across the country. PACE programs offer the opportunity to finance the up-front cost of an installation and then pay back that cost as an assessment on the property taxes of the building or location where the system was installed. One of the greatest benefits is that the cost of the system is tied to the location, making for a simpler process if there is a change in ownership. The nuances of these programs are important and will vary from state to state. For example, the recently adopted PACE program in Montana is only available to commercial entities.

Your utility may offer discounts, rebates, or other incentives that can help with the cost of renewable energy and/or energy efficiency technologies. In Montana, we have the Universal Systems Benefits (USB) program. Our largest investor-owned utility, NorthWestern Energy, administers this state-authorized incentive program through its “E+ Renewable Energy Program” to qualifying non-profit organizations, government agencies, and schools in NorthWestern Energy’s Montana service territory. Projects receiving these funds often provide civic value, including education and visible representation of renewable energy technologies to a broad audience. The Montana USB program provides grants, but other utility territories may offer programs with discounts or rebates on certain energy efficiency products. Reach out to your energy provider to ask what incentives it offers. 

Private financial institutions are beginning to offer their own renewable-energy focused products. For example, Clearwater Credit Union (based in Missoula, MT) offers two home energy loans: an unsecured, easy-access Home Solar Loan; and a Home Energy Efficiency Loan. Because it is a private institution (and not a state agency), the credit union can usually offer a decision in minutes. These options can be particularly attractive for businesses or households that already have an account with that institution.

Third-party financing is another option to consider. In this scenario, a private, third-party financer will develop a solar project on leased or purchased land or roof space. The financer provides the capital and, in doing so, is often able to take advantage of tax breaks that can lower the overall project cost. They enter into a contract with the system host (i.e., the building or land owner) who then benefits from the project by receiving the energy produced on-site. The host may pay the financer a regular payment (fixed or otherwise) related to the value of the energy delivered. At the end of the contract term, the host may also have an option to purchase the system from the financer. The crux is finding a third-party financer you are comfortable working with. These types of contracts can be technical, and the nuances are very important. If you are interested in this model, I recommend working with a legal expert to make sure you understand the terms and conditions of any agreement that you sign. Missoula County recently worked on the first third-party financed system in Montana. MREA hosted a webinar about the experience, and about third-party financing in general. A link to the recording is provided below.

A closing note on tax incentives (generally): Be sure to consult with a tax professional to ensure that these options are available to you. Unless the tax credit is specifically noted as refundable, you must have a sufficient tax liability to claim the value of the credit. For example, the Federal ITC is not currently refundable (though SEIA and other solar advocates have lobbied Congress to make it so).

As you can see, there are varied options available to help with the cost of a solar installation. However, the nuances are important and can drive the cost and savings that you will eventually realize. As you explore these different options, be sure to reach out to local solar advocates and legal and tax experts in your area with any clarifying questions.

Resources:

Federal ITC (for businesses)

Federal ITC (for residences)

USDA REAP Program

IIJA funding opportunities

MREA webinar on Third-Party Financing

Montana-specific Programs and Examples:

MREA website on financing and incentives

Alternative Energy Revolving Loan Program

Clearwater Credit Union energy loans

Northwestern Energy E+ Renewable Incentives


[1] Solar Energy Industries Association. (2022). “Solar Industry Research Data.” https://www.seia.org/solar-industry-research-data

Decomposition models of solar irradiance estimate the magnitude of diffuse horizontal irradiance from global horizontal irradiance. These two radiation components are well-known to be essential for the prediction of solar photovoltaic systems performance. In open-field agrivoltaic systems, that is the dual use of land for both agricultural activities and solar power conversion, cultivated crops receive an unequal amount of direct, diffuse and reflected photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) depending on the area they are growing due to the non-homogenously shadings caused by the solar panels installed (above the crops or vertically mounted). It is known that PAR is more efficient for canopy photosynthesis under conditions of diffuse PAR than direct PAR per unit of total PAR. For this reason, it is fundamental to estimate the diffuse PAR component in agrivoltaic systems studies to properly predict the crop yield.

The thermal integration into industrial process is majorly focused on guaranteeing the heat duty and temperature level demanded by the processes. Other important objectives must be considered when integrating solar thermal energy since its integration into industrial processes seeks to maximize its use. The present work proposes a comprehensive integration of solar thermal energy based on the Pinch Analysis that considers economical evaluation and environmental impact. The approach establishes multiple objectives for the optimal solar system final design. Profitable costs for two case studies, a dairy and a 2G bioethanol process, were obtained. For both scenarios the integrated solar thermal system of dairy processes was viable with zero emissions of CO2. In 2G bioethanol process, only in one scenario the solar fraction was equal to one. It is possible to reach a surplus energy of 44%, with the same absorber area of solar energy, or would be possible to reduce the area by 49% to supply the heat duties.

The purpose of this study was to describe the development of a solar-powered submersible pump system without the use of batteries in agriculture. The submersible pump system used a solar drive to run it. The implementation uses a combination of solar trackers, water storage tanks, power converters, and stabilizers. The results of the study explained that solar trackers increased the efficiency of solar units that track the sun throughout the day and convert solar energy into DC electrical power.

World population growth is leading to an increased demand for energy and food. This is creating a conflict over land use as terrain for large renewable energy facilities is not available for agricultural. As a solution, agrivoltaics combines the use of the land for agricultural and photovoltaic exploitation. In this work, the conversion of photovoltaic installations with N-S horizontal trackers into agrivoltaic installations by cultivating tree crops in hedgerows between the rows of collectors is analyzed. Specifically, the shading of the crop on the photovoltaic panels is studied. It has been proved that there is an area between the collectors in which the crop would not shade the photovoltaic panels. Likewise, a new tracking/backtracking strategy is proposed to avoid shading in cases where the crop exceeds this region of no influence. Finally, it has been found that the Land Equivalent Ratio for an agrivoltaic plant in Cordoba (Spain) with N-S horizontal trackers and olive groves in hedges up to 3.0 m high and 1.5 m wide can increase between 28.9% and 47.2%. Thus, these PV installations are potentially adaptable to agrivoltaic installations making renewable energy facilities compatible with a more efficient and sustainable agricultural model.

Photovoltaic (PV) power plants have shown rapid development in the renewable sector, but the research areas have mainly included land installations, and the study of fishery complementary photovoltaic (FPV) power plants has been comparatively less. Moreover, the mechanism of local microclimate changes caused by FPV panels has not been reported. This work revealed this mechanism using a physical model to illustrate the impact of FPV power plants in a lake on the environment. The results indicated that the lake becomes a heat sink after deploying the PV panel on water. The comprehensive albedo decreased by 18.8% relative to the free water surface. The water energy change was dominated by the water–air vapor pressure deficit. In addition, the FPV panels had a heating effect on the ambient environment; however, the range of this effect was related to the water depth. The installation had an obvious heating effect on surface water.

This publication provides a pictorial guide to several of the most beneficial hedgerow plant species used in farmscaping for native pollinators and insect predators and parasites in California.

This is a summary of research that tested the efficacy of prairie strip practice to improve honey beekeeping while maintaining a community of wild pollinators compared to farms without prairie strips.

Solar energy is the fastest growing renewable energy source. It is predicted that 20-29% of global power will be sourced by solar by 2100. Solar energy requires larger land footprints and long-term commitments. Vegetation left under solar panels reduces soil degradation and opens up the potential for solar grazing as a dual income for farmers and vegetation management for solar utilities. Research conducted on multiple solar sites in Minnesota reveal there can be meaningful forage in 45% shade and 80% shade from solar panels. Furthermore, grazing sheep under solar panels produces both a higher content of carbon and nitrogen in the soil. Managed episodic grazing can be used as a strategy for carbon sequestration and vegetation management. Soil properties show an overall improvement and benefits depending on soil properties. Future work must be done to measure the long term soil carbon and hydrological properties.

Global energy demand is increasing as greenhouse gas driven climate change progresses, making renewable energy sources critical to future sustainable power provision. Land-based wind and solar electricity generation technologies are rapidly expanding, yet our understanding of their operational effects on biological carbon cycling in hosting ecosystems is limited. Wind turbines and photovoltaic panels can significantly change local ground-level climate by a magnitude that could affect the fundamental plant–soil processes that govern carbon dynamics. We believe that understanding the possible effects of changes in ground-level microclimates on these phenomena is crucial to reducing uncertainty of the true renewable energy carbon cost and to maximize beneficial effects. In this Opinions article, we examine the potential for the microclimatic effects of these land-based renewable energy sources to alter plant–soil carbon cycling, hypothesize likely effects and identify critical knowledge gaps for future carbon research. Land use change for land-based renewables (LBR) is global, widespread and predicted to increase. Understanding of microclimatic effects is growing, but currently incomplete, and subsequent effects on plant–soil C cycling, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and soil C stocks are unknown. We urge the scientific community to embrace this research area and work across disciplines, including plant–soil ecology, terrestrial biogeochemistry and atmospheric science, to ensure we are on the path to truly sustainable energy provision.