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Agrivoltaics — A Climate Solution
Imagine a world where we can use the sun twice:  once to produce power from solar energy; and the second to grow food.  That's what agrivolatics can offer, and it's a practice that is gaining a lot of interest in the U.S. The concept has been around since the 1980s.  It centers on locating agriculture and solar panels on the same parcel of land. Renewable energy replaces fossil fuels, lowering carbon emissions., and can provide a supplemental source of income for farmers.

Agrivoltaics Explained
The term "agrivoltaics" is derived from “agriculture” and “photovoltaics”.  With this technology, panels are installed from seven to 10 feet above ground to accommodate farming and animals looking for shade. Sunlight to plants is provided by gaps  between panels in the same row, or a solar tracking system that orients panels towards the sun.  

U of MA grad student harvests produce from agrivoltaics research project sponsored by NREAL and DOE InSPIRE. 2018. via Flickr

Researchers are finding the partial shade provided by agrivoltaic systems can increase yields for many corps, including sun-loving tomatoes and peppers. Leafy vegetables grow larger leaves as they reach for the sun. Agrivoltaics conserves water because of the partial shade created by solar panels (University of Wyoming). Shade provided by panels also improves animal comfort by reducing heat stress (University of Minnesota Extension). Agrivoltaic systems are more efficient because they are cooled by the vegetated ground below them. This means panels can produce as much as 10 percent more electricity (Oregon State University).

Introducing Jack's Solar Garden
Over the past year, Jack's Solar Garden, a 24-acre family farm in Boulder County has been producing clean energy to power around 300 homes. The project is the largest the largest commercially active agrivoltaics research facility in the U.S.

While producing power, Jack's Solar Garden  also produced 8,300 pounds of produced organically on its 5-acre demonstration site, run by Sprout City Farms. Panels were built six and eight feet above the ground, creating differing microclimates that will be studied by researchers hoping to better document the synergies between food and power production (e.g., water savings, yields for different crops, etc.).

Researches are also studying the effect of solar panels on water conservation; crop yield; pollinator plants' and native grasses for livestock. Research partners include:

  • Colorado State University
  • University of Arizona
  • National Renewable Energy Laboratory
  • Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Center

A living fence surrounds the solar array. More than 3,000 native trees, shrubs, and pollinator plants were installed by Audubon Rockies. This 25-foot wide perimeter attracts pollinators that can help improve crop yields. Deep-rooted perennials help keep the soil moist at times of drought, and prevent water runoff that could potentially contribute to climate change-induced flooding. Over time, improved soil health could also store carbon.

Jack's Solar Farm was built as a community-solar project, with subscribers by community residents, businesses, local governments, and funding from corporate donors. Watch this short video that highlights the benefits of agrivoltaics. It features Jack's Solar Farm.

Applicability in Illinois
Three-fourth's of Illinois' land area is in agriculture. But most of what is grown in Illinois is corn and soybeans, used for fuel and animal feed. Most of the food eaten by residents is imported, rather than grown on the state's prime and important farmland.

Eco-Justice Collaborative is beginning to explore opportunities for pairing community solar with regenerative agriculture; livestock production; and pollinator plants. Agrivoltaics is as a climate solution that can help struggling farmers who grow (or want to grow) fruits and vegetables. Most of these producers do not benefit from farm subsidies that are available to large farms that grow corn and soybeans.  Increasing local food production equitably also can help reduce food apartheid that exists across Illinois.

This coming January we are hosting a virtual meeting with Byron Kominek, co-owner of Jack's Solar Garden and members of the Natural Climate Solutions Working Group of the Downstate Caucus of the Illinois Clean Jobs coalition. The purpose of this meeting is to gather information and determine next steps for bringing agrivoltaics to Illinois. Watch our site for more information, including ways to get involved.

Note:  Banner photo of Jack's Solar Garden taken by Werner Slocum: NREL

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