“Explore all the options and be diverse,” says Colorado State University research ecologist Alan Knapp about agriculture and energy. I interviewed Knapp about a project he co-leads: Sustainably Co-locating Agricultural and Photovoltaic Electricity Systems (SCAPES). (Image, right)

That’s right, how to use land simultaneously for agriculture and solar power.

Alan Knapp, Colorado State Univ.

“It’s all the same – harvesting energy from the sun,” he says. “The same thing!” One is through plants and the other photovoltaics.

That opens thinking in itself.

My previous column about this project pointed out the either/or thinking that stifles creativity – it is either solar or farming. Nothing in between.

“One of the real problems we have now is that we have tried to fit agriculture into existing solar designs. It drove the configuration. We need to put all options on the table. Prioritize other areas. Co-prioritize. Optimize the two,” says Knapp.

Can it be done? It has started.

“Part solar farm, part garden, and a whole lot more,” is a slogan of Jack’s Solar and Garden (image left). In Boulder County, Colorado, more than 3,200 solar panels make a 1.2 MW community solar garden – “enough to power over 300 homes. Jack’s Solar Garden will be a model for farmers along the Front Range on how to produce renewable energy while improving agricultural production via agrivoltaics.” It is the largest commercially active system researching a variety of crop and vegetation growth under solar panels in the US.

The entire farm is 24 acres and the solar panels use about 4 acres

Demonstration projects like Jack’s advance the cause. So will modeling solar/agriculture systems at university labs. Both will be used to make the most of the research time and prove the feasibility of co-locating solar and agriculture.

Moving the concept ahead requires: “A change in thinking,” says Knapp. Mental changes by many people. “From the utility side they talk about being on a razor’s edge for profit. To allow less dense panel placement, for instance, does not work.” Farmers need some open space to operate, though.

The result is, “We have counties in Colorado that say no more utility-scale solar on land zoned for agriculture. There must be alternative patterns to generate electricity and use land for agriculture.”

Agriculture thinking is different, and perhaps easier to change. “If farmers can see how to maintain their crops and increase income, that will help a lot.” For instance, feedlots have cattle that will benefit from shade and that can be from solar panels. Some crops do better with some shade. Water could be conserved with solar panel shading.

Combining the best of both worlds is essential, though. “Solar arrays don’t have to be built on empty fields. These arrays can be the perfect tool for shielding sensitive crops from the heat of the midday sun, allowing farmers to continue to use the space,” says RealClear Energy.

Diversified revenue for farmers can be a strategic move. A farmer’s letter to the Greenfield (Mass) Recorder talks about long-term stability:

“While the passive lease income is certainly important, the primary motivation for landowners is usually the assets they will leave to their heirs. If not leased for photovoltaics, the land might be rented to a farmer on a year-to-year basis, or it might be sold, but a solar lease is a generation-skipping commitment.

This was my eureka moment. Conventional solar leases are already being used by landowning families as a multi-decade land conservation tool, and better agrisolar system designs could also be incubators of agricultural innovation and economic development.”

“Explore all the options and be diverse.” Remember that? Knapp says, “Unlike agriculture, with solar energy production there are few bad years because the sun always shines. Together they can be a stabilizing force.”

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Feature image from the University of Illinois Institute for Sustainability, Energy and the Environment, co-researchers on the project above.