The Agrivoltaics Plot Thickens: Energy Crisis, Farm Crisis, & Water Crisis All In Play

Guzman Energy is not exactly a household word, but it should be. The Denver-based company sailed across the CleanTechnica radar three years ago with an innovative coal-for-solar financing plan aimed at rural electric cooperatives. In the latest twist, the company is showing how agrivoltaics can change hearts and minds among local policy makers, convincing them to approve new solar projects that would otherwise get the thumbs-down.

Solar To Coal: Hold My Beer

Rural electric cooperatives were established by federal law during the Depression. They were tasked with bringing electricity to the many rural communities that were passed over by for-profit power companies. Electric cooperatives are ratepayer-owned entities with local economic development and social benefit missions.

Guzman Energy entered the scene back in 2016 with a financial platform that enables electric cooperatives to wriggle out of long term coal power contracts without a burdensome financial penalty, and take in more solar power.

The Kit Carson Electric Cooperative was among Guzman’s first clients. KCEC has been front and center in the clean energy transition and it recently achieved 100% daytime solar for its ratepayers in New Mexico.

Agrivoltaics To The Rescue

CleanTechnica has been spilling much ink on the topic of agrivoltaics over the past several years, and the good news just keeps getting better.

The main item of note is the preservation of land for agricultural use. Instead of peppering farmland with solar panels situated close to the ground, agrivoltaics deploys raised solar panels that permit some farming to occur within the array. The farmer can get some much-needed revenue from the array, without taking arable land out of circulation.

Agrivoltaics also overlaps with the regenerative agriculture trend, which focuses on soil and water conservation. Shade from the solar panels creates a cooling micro-climate that reduces evaporation and helps prevent soil loss.

The relationship is a symbiotic one. Solar panels work more efficiently in cooler temperatures, and a thick cushion of vegetation under the panels helps keep the temperature down.

Converting Solar Naysayers To Solar Cheerleaders

One notable development occurred last spring, when Guzman won approval to construct an 80-megawatt solar installation planned on 472 acres. The site is a ranch located in Delta County, in western Colorado.

The plan was initially booed by some members of the community and rejected by the County Commissioners, on grounds that it would take ranching lands out of use.

The majority on the Commissioner Board finally came around when Guzman presented a plan to graze 1,000 or so sheep within the array.

Reporter Judith Kohler of the Denver Post notes that land restoration is also part of the plan. “Guzman Energy, which is working with Citra Power to build the solar farm, plans to spend about $1.5 million on landscaping and irrigation,” she wrote. “Preliminary plans call for planting 590 trees and 1,440 shrubs.”

US Department Of Energy Pitches Solar Panels Plus Farming

The US Department of Energy has not been standing idly by while the agrivoltaics field takes off. The agency’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory launched a multi-year, multi-partner research partnership a while back, and CleanTechnica took note of the goings-on in July of 2020:

“So, what does the Energy Department have to do with agrivoltaics? Plenty! The GIANT Company is participating in a major nationwide, 20-state solar-plus-pollinators project under the umbrella of [the] National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

“Called InSPIRE for Innovative Site Preparation and Impact Reductions on the Environment, the project connects NREL and Argonne National Laboratory with other stakeholders in academia and local governments as well as environmental and clean energy organizations, with funding from the DOE Solar Technologies Office.”

NREL and its partners have been rather busy these past two years. Last week, it issued an update describing how the collaborative research project has developed “the 5 C’s,” a short list of best practices.

1. Climate, soil and environment must be amenable to both solar panels and crops or ground cover.

2. Configurations, solar technologies and design need to account for farm usage, including tractors and other equipment, for the lifespan of the array. That period typically lasts about 25 years.

3. Crop selection and cultivation methods, seed and vegetative designs, and management approaches should be those that promote thriving crops that can turn a profit in local markets.

4. Compatibility and flexibility is needed to balance the needs of the solar owners and operators with the priorities of the farmer or landowner.

5. Collaboration and partnerships are a must. “For any project to succeed, communication and understanding between groups is crucial,” NREL explains.

Reducing The Cost Of Solar Arrays

NREL has also been running a research project called PV-SMarRT (Photovoltaic Stormwater Management Research and Testing), which could help make solar installations even more attractive to farmers.

PV-SMaRT assesses how solar arrays impact the way water runoff occurs on the site.

Currently, many local regulations treat solar installations similar to parking lots with respect to water runoff, requiring the solar projects to install large drainage basins and other infrastructure to capture water runoff from rainstorms,” NREL explains. “However, the soil and vegetation underneath these panels can absorb much more water than a paved surface and can play an important role in reducing erosion.”

The project has enlisted five sites at various locations to collect data on water runoff. If all goes according to plan, the data will make the case for reducing the amount of money needed for human-built runoff control.

“This research could help local and state governments set new regulations that require smaller drainage basins for future solar installations, reducing the cost of solar energy,” NREL explains.

Onward & Upward For Agrivoltaics

As for exactly what kind of farming can take place within a solar array, that’s a good question. The initial focus was on livestock grazing and pollinator habitats.

The field has branched out since the early days. One interesting variation is taking place in Massachusetts, where cranberry farmers are cultivating sprouts in boglands peppered with solar panels.

NREL is also showcasing a Colorado site called Jack’s Solar Garden, which is experimenting with vegetable crops while piling on the community benefits of solar panels-plus-farming Educational activities, a workforce development program, assistance for low-income households, and support for local artists are all in the mix.

If you’re wondering where the US Department of Agriculture factors in, go look them up. Earlier this year they drew attention to the fact that solar arrays are not confined to Colorado and other parts of the sunny southwest.

They point out that the northeast is also becoming a hotbed of agrivoltaics activity, including the Massachusetts cranberry projects, blueberry farms in Maine, and pasture lands in Vermont.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Image: Agrivoltaics combines solar panels and agriculture (courtesy of NREL).


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