Since quarantine began, many of us are much more aware of the need for producers and companies to maintain a healthy food supply chain. But we still don’t think of what that entails, including the need for agricultural enterprises to ensure lower costs and more viable business models. One opportunity some farmers are trying out is by creating dual-use farms: farms that produce both crops and electricity through solar power, or “agrivoltaics.”
Agrivoltaics (also known as agrophotovoltaics) was a term to reflect new research into how to maximize land use efficiency while generating power for farms, and potentially as an additional revenue stream. For example, some companies are starting to think about dual-use farms as an opportunity for community solar.
Community solar is a business model that allows several consumers to have access to a solar system, spreading the costs and benefits among users. It has been growing in popularity especially in urban areas to help streamline costs, enabling lower-income consumers to participate.
BlueWave Solar, a company based in Massachusetts, has been working to center dual-use farms in its community solar initiatives. They have designed an approach to allow agriculture to coincide with the solar arrays, spacing and orienting the arrays to allow for more sunlight for the crops and more space for free maneuvering of both equipment and people.
Drew Pierson, Head of Sustainability for BlueWave, said the company has been working with other solar developers in the area as well the agriculture and energy departments of the state of Massachusetts, the University of Massachusetts Clean Energy Extension and the American Farmland Trust to bring the science of solar to improve the efficacy of regional farmland. They want to make the Northeast “a laboratory to make optimal use of our land and develop innovation solutions for food, water, energy, and economics.”
This matters in a region like New England, where about 90 percent of its food has to be imported from outside the region and thus is vulnerable to disruptions in the food supply chain. In order to address resilience issues, the community of researchers, academics, the ag community, and political leadership want to see more food produced within the region, with sustainability and resilience top of mind. But land is constrained and the solutions require innovative thinking.
BlueWave wants to use the Northeast as a test bed for research to develop dual-use technologies that can create a roadmap for scalability across the region and beyond. One key component is water conservation related to solar, an issue that developers generally consider less when conceptualizing solar development projects. Though in early stages of research, the company is looking at how micro-climates retain water better with solar as well as deploying measurement tools and devices to map how water is flowing under the surge within a solar project.
Liz Varney, owner of Twin Elm Farms in Mendon, Massachussets, is using BlueWave’s solar system on her farm. Her family has owned their farm for decades and in addition to the financial concerns, they wanted to maintain the farm as a scenic part of the landscape. Solar appealed to her as both a technology that would reduce costs and help generate additional income while preserving the landscape.
When asked what lessons she would share with other family farms interested in solar and agrivoltaics, Varney said partnering with a company that listened to her and the community’s concerns to make the project a part of the community as opposed to something imposed upon it. Time and time again, from climate justice to community solar, the need to engage the community and give them ownership over the solution is critical to success.
Solar has been used in conjunction with agriculture in other parts of the country, such as California. Engaging farms in a dual-use economy to help spur the development of community solar is a relatively new way of thinking about how to make our farms and our energy supply more sustainable. As we remain at home, ordering our groceries and using excess electricity to power our laptops, it’s worth thinking about how these two industries are innovating at the very source. Agrivoltaics could be one long-term answer.
Image credit: Max Trommsdorff/Wiki Commons
Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.
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