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Can Dual-Use Solar Panels Provide Power and Share Space With Crops?

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In its 150-year history, Paul Knowlton’s farm in Grafton, Mass., has produced vegetables, dairy products and, most recently, hay. The evolution of the farm’s use turned on changing markets and a variable climate. Recently, nonetheless, Mr. Knowlton added a latest variety of money crop: solar energy.

For Mr. Knowlton, a fifth-generation farmer and the present owner, it was a simple call. He had already installed solar panels to offer electricity for his home and barn. When an actual estate agent got here knocking to see if he was thinking about leasing a small portion of his land for a solar array, “she planted the seed that I could do more,” Mr. Knowlton said.

Mr. Knowlton checked out several firms but was most impressed with BlueWave Solar, a developer in Boston that focuses totally on solar installations and battery storage, which allows excess electricity to be fed to the facility grid. Soon, two small parcels of largely unused land were home to low-to-the-ground panels that produce power. This 12 months, Mr. Knowlton’s farm will go one step further: In a 3rd parcel, solar panels will share space with crops in order that each can thrive.

This approach is known as agrivoltaics — a portmanteau of agriculture and voltaic cells, which transform solar energy to electrical power. Also called dual-use solar, the technology involves adjusting the peak of solar panels to as much as 14 feet, in addition to adjusting the spacing between them, to accommodate equipment, employees, crops and grazing animals. The spacing and the angle of the panels allows light to succeed in the plants below, and has the additional benefit of protecting those crops from extreme heat.

The electricity generated gets uploaded to the grid, typically through nearby substations. While a few of the electricity may find its technique to the host farm, the projects are devised to offer power for general use. And such solar installations provide another income in the shape of payments to landowners like Mr. Knowlton or a discount in lease payments for tenant farmers.

BlueWave has focused totally on designing the projects, then selling them to firms that construct and oversee them. The Grafton project, on Mr. Knowlton’s farm, for instance, is now owned by the energy company AES Corporation.

“Not only do agrivoltaics advance the clean energy imperative but they’re critical to maintaining working farms,” said John DeVillars, certainly one of BlueWave’s three co-founders and the chair of the board of directors.

Dual-use solar became of interest greater than a decade ago because “big installations in the midst of nowhere aren’t going to resolve all of our energy problems — transporting that energy might be very expensive,” said Greg Barron-Gafford, a biogeographer and an assistant professor on the University of Arizona. Farms in lots of parts of the country are in peri-urban areas, zones of transition from rural to urban land. Their proximity to high-use metropolitan areas makes open farmland particularly suitable for solar arrays, but prior to now, with none coexisting agriculture, that type of placement can arrange a conflict over whether food or energy production should prevail.

In a study by AgriSolar Clearhouse, a latest collaboration to attach farmers and other landowners with agrivoltaic technology, the installations were also shown to foster growth by shielding crops from increasing temperatures and aiding with water conservation. While the technology stays in its infancy in the USA compared with countries in Europe, where the technology has been used for over a decade, federal regulators in addition to academics and developers are working to treatment that disparity.

Early results are promising, said Garrett Nilsen, the acting director of the Solar Energies Technologies Office of the U.S. Department of Energy. “There’s a project in Arizona where they’ve seen a threefold increase in crop yields once they are underneath this sort of system and as much as a 50 percent reduction in irrigation requirements” since the panels provide shade, he said. Moreover, the plants under the panels release water into the air, which cools the modules, creating what Mr. Nelson described as a “symbiotic relationship between the plants and the panels.”

Updated 

June 28, 2022, 10:40 a.m. ET

BlueWave’s first project to go live is a 10-acre farm in Rockport, Maine — now owned and operated by Navisun, a solar energy producer. Wild blueberry cultivars have been planted below solar panels, which can produce 4.2 megawatts of power; the project is estimated to supply 5,468 megawatt-hours annually — akin to the quantity of power needed for roughly 500 U.S. households.

Unlike Massachusetts, Maine doesn’t offer significant incentives for the usage of solar energy, so there was a ten to fifteen percent premium on costs when put next with similar projects, which BlueWave absorbed, Mr. DeVillars said. (That practice is consistent with the corporate’s status as a so-called B-Corporation, which requires a commitment to social and environmental goals.)

Other players are clearly seeing the potential of agrivoltaics: In May 12, Axium Infrastructure, an investment management firm, announced its acquisition of BlueWave. Trevor Hardy will remain as chief executive and Eric Graber-Lopez will proceed as president, while Mr. DeVillars will turn out to be chairman emeritus.

Mr. Hardy said that the sale would allow BlueWave to expand in order that it is going to own and operate, not only develop, solar installations and battery storage. Ultimately, he said, the sale “puts us in a stronger place for dual use.”

“Farmers work on a long-term basis,” he continued. “It’s more compelling to drive up farm roads and sit with the owners at their kitchen tables and say that we develop, own and operate the installation.” And the technology’s potential goes well beyond blueberries; agricultural uses have included vineyards and shrimp farming.

BlueWave just isn’t the one agrivoltaics developer. Based on the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE, based in Germany, five megawatts of power were produced through these systems in 2012; by 2021, 14 gigawatts of power were generated in dual-use systems — roughly akin to the electricity essential for roughly two million U.S. households annually, in accordance with a spokeswoman from the Department of Energy’s technologies office. And the technology is evolving rapidly; within the few years because the installation at Mr. Knowlton’s farm, adjustable panels that may move to maximise the capture of sunlight, for instance, have been developed.

“It doesn’t all the time pay to be a pioneer and it’s very difficult at times,” said Mr. Hardy, who grew up in a South African farming family. Finding suitable sites — where there may be sufficient sun and proximity to a substation or other electrical infrastructure — might be difficult. Opposition from neighbors, especially where panels are visible from other homes and even the road, just isn’t unusual.

Indeed, BlueWave was certainly one of several defendants named in a suit over a proposed plan for agrivoltaics in Northfield, Mass. A state court recently ruled that the neighbor had standing to challenge the proposed development. One among the plaintiffs, Christopher Kalinowski, said that amongst his concerns were that his views can be obstructed and that “the realm will lose farmland.” (Mr. Hardy declined to comment on the litigation.)

As well as, some chapters of the Audubon nonprofit environmental organization have been vocal concerning the technology’s potential effect on wildlife. Michelle Manion, the vice chairman of policy and advocacy for Mass Audubon, said that while her organization supported renewable energy, including solar inside farming operations, “we wish to maximise the position of ground-mounted solar on a few of our lands which are the least ecologically sensitive first.”

And there are general concerns that even with dual-use solar panels, arable land could also be lost, though BlueWave says that the land might be reverted to pure agriculture uses once the solar leases — typically 20 to 30 years — expire.

But one of the vital significant obstacles is cost. The skyrocketing cost of steel has a direct effect on agrivoltaics’ emphasis on raising the panels 10 to 14 feet. “For each foot you go up it’s essential to go two feet into the inspiration,” Mr. Hardy explained. “It’s a difficult industry while you consider what we’d like to do to succeed in climate goals. But we’re staying the course.”

Ultimately, though, every thing depends upon how the crops taste: If flavor and even appearance strays too removed from that of traditional produce, the technology will likely be a tough sell. But in an early study, researchers on the Biosphere 2 Agrivoltaics Learning Lab on the University of Arizona found that tasters preferred the potatoes, basil and squash grown with agrivoltaics. Beans, nonetheless, may take a while: The small sample of tasters preferred the traditionally grown version.

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