Building solar panels above crops and livestock is a win for energy and agriculture

By Greg Brophy

Out of small things, big things can grow.

That’s true for businesses, technological advances and many other human endeavors. Speaking as a corn and melon farmer from Colorado’s Eastern Plains, I can say it’s also true about agriculture — literally so. Between planting season and harvest season, the speed of growth in a good crop year is truly amazing. 

I have similarly high hopes for a new initiative in Colorado that combines farming with the generation of electricity from photovoltaic solar panels. The practice of co-locating crops, livestock and solar panels — better known as agrivoltaics — is not widespread just yet. But it’s promising and builds on generations of complementary energy production in farming and ranching communities — from wind turbines to biofuels, renewable natural gas to traditional hydrocarbons.

The first and most obvious benefit of agrivoltaics is the revenue that farmers and ranchers receive from the solar panels themselves, just as they would from any other source of energy production on their land.

But there are other benefits too. When solar panels are sited correctly and boosted several feet above the ground, the shade they provide creates different growing conditions — or microclimates — on a farm or a ranch. This allows for a wider range of crops and livestock to be raised, giving the landowner more options for boosting the productivity of their land.

The shade also reduces the amount of water needed for irrigation, and in return, the vegetation underneath the solar panels keeps those panels cooler, boosting operational efficiency and the amount of electricity they produce.

I saw this first-hand on a recent tour of Jack’s Solar Garden, the largest active research site for agrivoltaics in the country, located just south of Longmont, Colo. More than 15 crop varieties are being grown there under the partial shade of more than 3,000 solar panels.

It’s an elegant solution that holds the promise of diffusing land-use conflicts over renewable energy before they even start.

The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that solar panels may need as much as 10.3 million acres of land by 2050, depending on how much the sector grows over the coming decades. That’s more than twice the size of the state of New Jersey, and it will require large-scale solar arrays to be built where there are wide open spaces.

Some of that development will take place — and is already taking place — in rural communities where agriculture isn’t just an economic driver, it’s a source of tremendous pride.

While the wind industry was quick to observe this, it’s taken longer for some in the solar industry to realize that farmers and ranchers don’t want to trade agricultural land for energy-producing land. They want to use their land for both agriculture and energy, not just for business reasons, but for personal reasons, too.

The potential for agrivoltaics to offer the best of both worlds has caught the attention of Colorado lawmakers. Earlier this year, a bipartisan bill — SB23-092 — passed the state legislature with overwhelming support.

Sen. Cleave Simpson and Rep. Matt Soper, both Republicans, worked with two Democrats, Sen. Chris Hansen and Rep. Karen McCormick, to get the bill through what was otherwise a very contentious legislative session. The fact that Simpson is a farmer and rancher and McCormick is a veterinarian probably helped them explain why the concept of agrivoltaics holds such promise.  

The bill’s provisions on agrivoltaics are quite modest, which as a fiscal conservative, strikes me as a good idea. The legislation authorizes $500,000 in state grants to support other small-scale agrivoltaic projects to see if the success of Jack’s Solar Garden can be repeated elsewhere.

I’m sure it will be, even though it may take years before this kind of innovation becomes standard across much bigger farming and ranching operations. It will take some time for agrivoltaics to gain familiarity and trust among farmers and ranchers, and what works on a small scale may need some modification and improvement before it can work on a much larger scale.

But the potential of this emerging agricultural and energy partnership is undeniable. Even if it starts small, I have a feeling it will eventually grow into something much, much bigger.

Brophy is a former state senator and farmer from Wray, Colo. He is the Colorado director for The Western Way.

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