Solar and Agriculture: Double Cropping Energy and Food

solar integrated agriculture photo

Image credit: Piedmont Biofuels

From a 25-megawatt photovoltaic plant in Florida to a 4,500 acre solar thermal installation in California, solar just keeps getting bigger. Within that context, a 100kw array may seem hardly worth mentioning, but folks in my community are excited, and not without reason. (Disclaimer alert: Friends of mine are involved with this project.)You see traditionally, unlike wind, large-scale solar has often meant displacing otherwise productive land, to the point where some areas like Ontario are looking at banning solar from class "a" and class "b" farmland. What sets this project apart is that it aims to not just co-exist with productive farm land, but actually enhance the agricultural process. The plant, which got the go ahead from funders only a few days ago, will cover approximately one acre of productive, organic farmland and will be designed from the outset to enhance cultivation as best it can—double cropping solar with food. From protecting tomatoes from rain (tomatoes do better if only their roots are fed), through shading cooler weather crops like salad and arugula as our climate heats up, to providing support for trellises and other crop infrastructure, the idea is to find ways that we can grow food and harvest energy as symbiotically as possible.

It seems like the details are yet to be worked out (when I asked for an image, I was told "Christ, can you let me get it built before you need aerial shots?", before receiving the rather random snowman image above), but that's where much of the value in this project lies. If the basics can be figured out on an acre, then soon enough farmers across the country could be double cropping with solar and food.

The project is the brainchild of the good folks at Piedmont Biofuels who, far from being simple evangelists for plant-based fuels, have always recognized that our future hinges on rethinking the way we supply all of our needs, from energy to food to housing, and finding innovative ways to do more with less. From their Community Supported Agriculture scheme to making soap from biodiesel byproducts to promoting non-driving "Tuscany days", these guys are systems thinkers of the highest order.

I should note that ever since I interviewed Lyle Estill of Piedmont Biofuels (see also parts two and three), I've come to think of this crew as friends and co-conspirators. In other words, I have a certain bias toward this project, but it's a bias that comes from knowing that it is being run by folks who don't just talk about what should be done. They roll up their sleeves and have a go - and often that means figuring out the kinks along the way. I for one will be watching for what lessons are learned.

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