Green energy just keeps getting greener and greener. In the latest development, the biggest agrivoltaic research project in the US is taking shape in Colorado in and around an array of solar panels, meaning they are not going to plant a bed of gravel under the solar panels. They are going to plant plants for people, animals, birds, and insects to eat. That is just a taste of the community benefits expected to flow from the so-named Jack’s Solar Garden in Boulder County, Colorado.
Putting The Green In Green Energy
Solar farms have become a lifeline for farmers in need of revenue, but the problem is that conventional solar arrays are not very farmy. Policy makers are already concerned that replacing too much cropland with solar panels will lead to food supply issues.
Agrivoltaics was born when a lightbulb went off in somebody’s head. If you take an ordinary ground-mounted solar panel and raised it just a few extra feet off the ground, enough sunlight and water could reach the earth to do agriculture underneath.
There being no such thing as a free lunch, the taller racks would be more expensive and it could be difficult to harvest crops at commercial scale while dodging between the more expensive racks, for starters.
Nevertheless, agrivoltaics has taken off like a rocket in the past year or so in tandem with a spurt of interest in the field of regenerative agriculture. Soil and water conservation is the main overlap, since the solar panel helps reduce evaporation. Meanwhile, the cooling effect of vegetation helps improve solar conversion efficiency.
The knowledge base is growing rapidly and at least one leading solar developer, Lightsource BP, is already offering an agrivoltaic angle on its PV business.
US Dept. Of Energy Hearts Green Energy
So far much of the agrivoltaic activity in the US has focused on combining pollinator habitats and grazing lands with green energy. There is also some interesting activity afoot in the cranberry bogs.
Meanwhile, the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory is among those building up interest in growing actual vegetables for people to eat in amongst the solar panels.
That’s where Jack’s Solar Garden comes in. In 2019 the family-owned farm won an NREL award to serve as the site of the largest agrivoltaic research project in the US, leveraging the 24-acre farm’s 1.2 megawatt solar array.
The project involves NREL as project manager and technical supporter, with Colorado State University running desktop and field studies. The University of Arizona is also on board with the project.
The initial proposal for the study area was fairly modest, consisting of just 1 acre planted with various vegetables. However, a lot of punch is being packed into the space, including a new rainwater distribution system leveraging runoff from the solar panels.
Everybody Hearts Agrivoltaics
The green energy part of the project took shape last fall when Jack’s Solar Garden fired up its new solar array, and this spring will see the first planting season. Along with the usual wildflowers and grasses, the field will house vegetables such as carrots, onions, tomatoes, and squash.
This spring could also see the beginning of a new burst of activity in the agrivoltaics field all around the US. The solar supply chain is already gearing up to stimulate investor interest.
Earlier this week the Ohio-based PV tracker firm Solar FlexRack spotlighted Jack’s Solar Garden in a press release touting its “TDP Turnkey Solar Trackers,” which the solar developer Namasté Solar deployed to build the array at Jack’s.
“Namasté Solar…selected Solar FlexRack’s TDP Solar Trackers due to their versatility, as well as their smart backtracking, which reduces shading across rows and increases energy production,” enthused Solar FlexRack, adding that its “adaptable TDP Solar Trackers enabled Namasté Solar to overcome the challenge of installing the trackers at several different heights to test the impact of various amounts of shade and sunlight on crop growth, while still maximizing solar energy yield.”
Extra Green Energy Benefits For The Green Business Of The Future
For those of you keeping score at home, Solar FlexRack is a division of Ohio-based Northern State Metals, and the parent company is not passing up an opportunity to hitch its star to the green energy coattails along with a number of community benefits, too.
The Solar FlexRack press release shares much love with Jack’s Solar Garden, noting that “with Namasté Solar and Solar FlexRack’s help, Jack’s has been able to emphasize the idea of community while also cultivating the next generation of agrivoltaic farmers.”
The press release highlights these particulars:
1. Namasté Solar is an employee-owned cooperative and has been a certified B Corporation since 2011, meaning that it is “legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their employees, suppliers, communities, consumers, and environment.”
2. Audubon Rockies planted their largest “Habitat Hero” garden around the solar array, consisting of 1,800 perennials.
3. Sprout City Farms will manage the crops and train Colorado’s first generation of green energy farmers. The nonprofit is known for building urban educational farms and supporting local food systems with the aim of improving community health and resiliency.
4. Jack’s Solar Garden donates 2% of its green energy production to local low-income households.
5. Jack’s also has an “Artist on the Farm” program to support local artists.
6. And, Jack’s has established the new nonprofit Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Center, which will conduct educational tours and host research projects at the site.
More Green Energy For The Whole Community
To ice the green energy cake, solar power from the solar array at Jack’s Solar Garden falls under a community solar program run through the utility Xcel Energy. Community solar refers to solar projects that enable local ratepayers to claim a slice of green energy from solar panels located in or near their community.
The Energy Department is a huge fan of community solar programs, envisioning them as a key pathway for bringing affordable solar power within reach of every US household.
Community solar programs also provide local businesses with a green promotional angle. The local firm Western Disposal, for example, garnered some favorable media attention when it hooked up with Jack’s Solar Garden for green energy last week.
“Western Disposal is now sourcing about 90% of its electricity from a renewable source, thanks to a new partnership with Jack’s Solar Garden,” noted Yahoo! News.
Then there’s the Boulder-based national cannabis grower Terrapin, which inked a deal for 10% of the output from Jack’s Solar Garden. The pressure is growing on indoor cannabis cultivators to mind their carbon footprints, and the solar deal will enable Terrapin to claim 25% renewable energy for its operations.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo via prnewswire.com: “Byron Kominek, owner of Jack’s Solar Garden, riding his family’s tractor through their solar power system (courtesy of Werner Slocum, National Renewable Energy Laboratory).