Can dual-use solar panels provide electricity and share space with crops?

In its 150-year history, Paul Knowlton’s farm in Grafton, Massachusetts has produced vegetables, dairy, and most recently hay. The evolution of farm use has been linked to changing markets and changing climates. Recently, however, Mr. Knowlton has added a new type of cash crop: solar power.

For Mr. Knowlton, a fifth-generation farmer and current owner, it was easy. He has already installed solar panels to power his house and barn. When a real estate agent knocked to see if he was interested in leasing a small plot of his land for solar, “she planted the seed that I could do more,” Mr. Wilson said. Knowlton said.

mr. Knowlton reviewed several companies but was most impressed BlueWave Solar, a Boston-based real estate developer primarily focused on solar installations and batteries that feed excess electricity into the grid. Soon, low-lying panels were placed on two small plots of almost unused land, generating electricity. This year, the City of Knowlton Farm will take it one step further, with a third site where solar panels will share space with crops so that both can thrive.

This approach is called agrovoltaics – a mixture of agriculture and galvanic cells that convert solar energy into electrical energy. This technology, also called dual-use solar, involves adjusting the height of the solar panels up to 14 feet, as well as adjusting the spacing between them to accommodate equipment, workers, crops and grazing animals. The distance between the panels and the angle of the panels allows light to reach the plants below and has the added benefit of protecting these crops from extreme heat.

The generated electricity is fed into the grid, usually through nearby substations. While some of the electricity may go to the host farm, projects are being developed to provide electricity for the general public. And such solar installations provide an alternative source of income in the form of payments to landowners like Knowlton or reduced rents for tenant farmers.

BlueWave focused primarily on developing projects and then sold them to the companies that build and control them. Project Grafton, on Mr. For example, the Knowlton farm is now owned by the energy company AES Corporation.

“Agroenergy not only contributes to the clean energy imperative, but is critical to keeping farms running,” said John DeVillars, one of BlueWave’s three co-founders and chairman of the board.

Dual-use solar power has been gaining interest over a decade ago because “large installations off the beaten path won’t solve all of our energy problems — transporting that energy can be very expensive,” said Greg Barron-Gafford, a biogeographer. and assistant professor at the University of Arizona. Farms in many parts of the country are in suburban areas, transitional zones from rural to urban land. Their proximity to high-utilization metropolitan areas makes open farmland especially suitable for solar panels, but in the past, without any coexisting agriculture, such placement could have created conflict over what should prevail: food production or energy production.

AT the study AgriSolar Clearhouse, a new collaboration to connect farmers and other landowners with agro-electric technologies, has also shown that installations promote growth by protecting crops from rising temperatures and helping to conserve water. Although the technology in the United States is in its infancy compared to countries in Europe where the technology has been in use for more than a decade, federal regulators as well as scientists and developers are working to close this discrepancy.

Early results are promising, said Garrett Nielsen, acting director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Solar Energy Technologies. “There is a project in Arizona where they have seen a threefold increase in yield when they are under such a system and up to a 50 percent reduction in irrigation needs,” because the panels provide shade, he said. In addition, the plants under the panels release water into the air, which cools the modules, creating what Mr. Kevin is. Nelson described it as “a symbiotic relationship between plants and panels”.

BlueWave’s first launched project is a 10-acre farm in Rockport, Maine, currently owned and operated by Navisun, a solar power manufacturer. Varieties of wild blueberries have been planted under solar panels that will generate 4.2 megawatts of electricity; The project is estimated to produce 5,468 kilowatt-hours per year, equivalent to the amount of energy needed by about 500 US households.

Unlike Massachusetts, Maine doesn’t offer significant incentives for solar energy, so there was a 10-15 percent cost premium compared to similar projects that BlueWave took over. DeVillars said. (This practice is in line with the company’s status as a so-called B-Corporationwhich requires commitment to social and environmental goals.)

Other players clearly see the potential of agri-electricity: on May 12, investment management company Axium Infrastructure announced the acquisition of BlueWave. Trevor Hardy will remain chief executive and Eric Graber-Lopez will remain president. DeVillars will become honorary chairman.

mr. Hardy said the sale will allow BlueWave to expand so that it owns and operates, not just develops solar and battery systems. Ultimately, he said, the sale “will put us in a better position for dual use.”

“Farmers work on a long-term basis,” he continued. “It’s more convincing to drive down agricultural roads, sit with the owners at their kitchen tables and say we design, own and operate the plant.” And the technology’s potential goes far beyond blueberries; agricultural use included vineyards and shrimp farming.

BlueWave is not the only developer of agrovoltaics. According to Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE, based in Germany, produced five megawatts of electricity with these systems in 2012; by 2021, dual-use systems will generate 14 gigawatts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the electricity needed by about two million American households annually, according to a Department of Energy Technology Division spokesman. And the technology is advancing rapidly; in the years since its installation in the city, for example, Knowlton’s farm has developed adjustable panels that can move to capture maximum sunlight.

“Being a pioneer doesn’t always pay off, and it’s very difficult at times,” Mr. Hardy, who grew up in the family of a South African farmer. Finding suitable locations with plenty of sun and close to a substation or other electrical infrastructure can be difficult. Opposition from neighbors, especially where the panels are visible from other houses or even from the road, is not uncommon.

Indeed, BlueWave was one of several defendants named in a lawsuit over a proposed plan to build an agro-power plant in Northfield, Massachusetts. A state court recently ruled that a neighbor has the right to challenge the proposed development. One of the plaintiffs, Christopher Kalinowski, said that among his fears was that his views would be hindered and that “the area would lose farmland.” (Mr Hardy declined to comment on the lawsuit.)

In addition, some chapters of the non-profit environmental organization Audubon have voiced the potential impact of the technology on wildlife. Michelle Manion, vice president of policy and advocacy for Mass Audubon, said that while her organization supported renewable energy, including solar, in agricultural operations: “We want to maximize the placement of ground-based solar panels on some of our lands, which are the least environmentally sensitive in the first place.”

And there is a general concern that even with dual-use solar panels, arable land could be lost, although BlueWave says land could be returned to purely agricultural use after the solar lease expires — typically 20 to 30 years.

But one of the biggest hurdles is cost. rising cost of steel has a direct impact on the agri-electric industry’s focus on lifting panels 10 to 14 feet. “For every foot you climb, you need to go two feet into the foundation,” he said. Hardy explained. “This is a complex industry when you think about what we need to do to achieve climate goals. But we are on course.”

Ultimately, however, everything depends on the taste of the crop: if the taste or even the appearance is too different from traditional products, the technology will be difficult to sell. But in early research, researchers at the Biosphere 2 Agrivoltaics Learning Lab at the University of Arizona found that tasters prefer agrovoltaics-grown potatoes, basil, and squash. However, the beans can take some time to cook, with a small sample of tasters preferring the traditionally grown version.