Agrivoltaics Is a Win-Win for Clean Energy and Sustainable Agriculture

Combining agriculture and solar panels can bring new revenues to small farmers, save water, increase soil health, and help pollinators.

Jack's Solar Garden

Jack's Solar Garden

Welcome to Jack’s Solar Garden, a Colorado farm pioneering agrivoltaics—a system that involves growing food crops under solar panels.

Over the past year, this 24-acre family farm in Boulder County has been producing clean energy through 3,276 solar panels that generate enough electricity to power around 300 homes, all while growing sustainable crops. It also hosts several research projects into the synergies that are established when solar energy and food production are combined, making it the largest commercially active agrivoltaics research facility in the U.S.

The logic behind agrivoltaics is that growing crops in some of the around 2 million acres of land that would be covered by solar panels in the U.S. by 2030 could have many benefits for soil health, water management, and the local insect population. 

Through a project called InSPIRE, the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NERL) is studying agrivoltaics at approximately 20 sites across the U.S. 

Agrivoltaic systems are simple. Panels are installed at a higher level to allow for plants to grow underneath. The topsoil is left undisturbed and a diversity of crops is planted. 

Agrivoltaics is not suitable for large-scale farmers that need heavy machinery to cultivate their land, but for small-scale growers, the benefits are wide-ranging. Native plants attract pollinators, such as bees, that can help improve crop yields, while their roots help keep the soil moist at times of drought, and prevent water runoff that could potentially contribute to climate change-induced flooding.

These benefits could help discourage opposition to solar projects among people who consider solar panels “an eyesore.”

But there are also financial incentives because solar panels are an additional source of revenue for farmers and vegetation can boost electricity generation.

“Warmer temperatures can reduce the efficiency with which PV cells convert sunlight into electricity. The ground shading and increased evaporation provided by a healthy layer of undergrowth can actually cool solar panels, increasing their energy output,” says NERL.

Treehugger recently interviewed Byron Kominek, Jack’s Solar Garden owner and manager, to learn more about agrivoltaics:

Treehugger: I understand you have been operational for a year, how are things going?

Byron Kominek: On Nov. 1 we will have been putting in power for a year. It was a stressful year. Trying to get the land prepared, getting all our researchers set up, trying to figure out how everything was going to work for the season. We also partnered with a nonprofit called Sprout City Farms and they have been growing food here since the end of June on about an acre of land underneath the panels. It's nice to see what you've been working on for years starting to happen. This is just the first year. We’re going to get better at it next year and the following year. I look forward to the coming years. 

How did the farming go?

They've grown close to 6,000 pounds of food. They've been growing lots of tomatoes and peppers. They harvested a lot of beets today, different types of squashes, pumpkins, radishes... Earlier on we had different types of lettuces like arugula, plenty of kale, lots of different types of beans and carrots, and some types of flowers. 

Do they use sustainable methods?

They don't use chemical sprays. We did tilling this year because we had to create the crop beds but they do not intend to till in future years. It'll turn into a no-till organic farm. It won't be certified organic because doing that costs a lot so we'll just do it without getting the certification. Also, the majority of the production has been going to places where people in need of food can go, they have been dropping thousands of pounds of food there.

Who do you sell power to?

We sell electricity to residents and commercial entities, as well as the government. Residents and the government purchase upfront for either 5, 10, or 20 years to help us with the construction of the solar array. We also have commercial entities that purchase power from us on a monthly basis. We have two cannabis companies [In The Flow and Terrapin] a bank, [Premier Members Credit Union] and a company that produces mushroom root-based meat [Meati].

What are the benefits of combining solar panels with agriculture?

Land can have lots of different uses, it doesn’t have to be one thing. We're still learning about the ways in which we can work the land underneath the panels to grow food better, but what we’ve found is that panels provide more shade, and more shade means less evaporation from the soil. The idea is that there's more moisture retained in the soils than if there were no panels, and that means you don't have to irrigate as much. And if you're in an arid or semi-arid climate, that's important.

Can you tell me more about the research that is going on at the farm?

NERL is looking at wildflowers, pollinator flowers, underneath the solar panels, and they'll study pasture grass underneath some panels next season. The University of Arizona is looking at the different types of micro-climates, trying to do comparisons between crop growth underneath panels at different heights, as well as outside the solar array. Colorado State University is looking at how water moves underneath the panels by measuring soil moisture content over the course of the season to better understand where moisture sits longer, and at ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration. 

You have also created a non-profit to promote agrivoltaics, the Colorado Agrivoltaics Learning Center, can you tell me more?

I think it's important that society knows we can do more with our land. Solar developers want to put up a ton of solar panels to help meet our clean energy goals. We shouldn't ignore that the soil beneath can still be productive. We just have to redesign the solar array somewhat. Namely, you have to put the panels up higher. If the panels are touching the ground, it's going to be hard to grow anything underneath and even harder to get somebody underneath to work the land. Basically the higher up you put the panels, the easier it is to maneuver underneath the solar array to get stuff done.

Over the next few years, the U.S. will see the largest peaceful land transition that the world has ever seen as older generations pass on land management to the next generation. And the question is ‘are these lands going to be producing enough revenue or is climate change going to be too harsh for these lands to grow food?’ I think of this as a government policy. It’s imperative to figure out if we’re going to transition large swaths of agricultural land to just solar arrays or if we’re going to figure out how to do the two together.