Solar Power On Farms, with Byron Kominek

A vast array of solar panels situated over flourishing farmland.

Image: Agrivoltaics is the co-location of solar panels and agriculture, as seen in this image of farmland covered with solar panels. Image by: Raphael Cruz on Unsplash.

Script by: Hannah Kaminker  |  Audio by: Hannah Kaminker  |  Blurb by: Ashley Carter

Solar Power on Farms

Many farmers, ranchers, and landowners are beginning to consider using their farmland not just for agricultural purposes, but for solar power as well. This combination of agriculture and solar is known as agrivoltaics, which offers an innovative approach to land management particularly in arid regions of the world. Solar panels on farms are often paired with regenerative agricultural practices as a way to increase the capacity of solar output, carbon sequestration, and quantity of agricultural yields. Agrivoltaics, an emerging form of land management, holds promise for the future in the movement toward making agriculture more sustainable.  

How does Agrivoltaics work?

Most farmers are reliant on fossil fuels as their primary energy source, which not only impacts the environment, but engenders significant overhead costs. Solar energy on farms is one way to decrease farmers’ reliance on fossil fuels and build long-term agricultural sustainability. Photovoltaic solar units can be built above pollinating plants and crops, allowing for increased shade, thereby providing energy for the farm and shielding the plants from intense heat from the sun.

Dynamic agrivoltaics utilizes raised solar panels built above growing plants. Beneath the solar panels, farmers can grow deep-rooted pollinating plants such as native grass and flowers. Dynamic agrivoltaics can also assist farmers in controlling the level of sunlight crops receive. Further, solar panels can provide resistance during extreme weather conditions, which are becoming more frequent. Although research is still ongoing, agrivoltaics has been proven to be a mechanism farmers can utilize in the face of climate change.

Agrivoltaics: A tool for future sustainability?

Agrivoltaics can help maintain crop yields, protect biodiversity, and increase solar output.  

With solar panels, the environment can stay cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. 

As a result, evaporation of irrigation water in the summer is reduced, and the cooler temperatures allow for soil to trap water more efficiently, thereby reducing costs for expensive irrigation systems. 

By reducing metabolic stressors (extreme heat, for example), plants are able to photosynthesize longer and grow larger. Plants like kale, shard, and bok choy have been proven to grow two to five times larger underneath solar panels. With increased growth capacity, carbon sequestration can increase and yields can go up, benefiting both the environment and farmer. 

In regions where the temperature rises above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, solar panels can begin to underperform due to overheating. However, when plants are underneath the panels, the evaporation from crops can create localized cooling, reducing heat stress on the panels and boosting energy output. 

In addition, agrivoltaics can also benefit the livestock industry. As climate change is increasing temperatures, animals are often suffering from heat exhaustion in the summer months, which decreases their appetite and can lead to heat stroke and reduced performance. By providing shade through solar panels, livestock will continue to eat even during warm temperatures. This can be particularly beneficial for range managers that utilize free range and rotational grazing.

Weather variability can impact farmers’ profits. The revenue generated from leasing land and electricity sales can provide another source of income for farmers. Therefore, solar panels can be utilized to ensure long-term economic security.

Potential Disadvantages of Agrivoltaics

Although agrivoltaics offers numerous environmental benefits, no climate-related solution comes without drawbacks. A large concern of solar panel installation is the outcome of their eventual disposal. With no proper strategies put into place for how to dispose of old solar panels, they will most likely be left to sit in landfills, releasing toxins into the environment and harming human health. Waste produced by solar panels may make electricity from solar panels four times more expensive than previously thought. 

Some environmental advocates are apprehensive about agrivoltaics as a potential solution to sustainable agriculture, fearing that solar panel installation will degrade land during assembly. The installation of solar panels has been associated with reducing ecosystem diversity and habitats for native species. Additionally, installing raised solar panels can result in higher costs due to the extra steel being utilized. 

Agrivoltaics is most practical in arid, dry regions, which limits its applicability to the Western US, Australia, highlands in South America, and other hot, dry climates. Lack of awareness and knowledge on the potential advantages of agrivoltaics has also limited its potential to become a common practice used in the transition to sustainable farming practices.

Who is Byron Kominek?

Byron Kominek, owner and manager of Jack’s Solar Garden in Colorado, uses the co-location of solar panels and regenerative agriculture on a 24 acre, 1.2 megawatt solar garden outside of the city of Denver. Jack’s Solar Garden hopes to inspire others with their innovative approach to farming by involving community members across Colorado in educational programs to learn about the benefits of agrivoltaics. Jack’s Solar Garden has partnered with the non-profit Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Center, to educate and inspire community members and farmers on the positive impacts of agrivoltaics. 

Further Reading


Transcript

Ethan: I’m Ethan Elkind, and you’re listening to Climate Break. Climate solutions in a hurry. Today’s proposal: co-locating solar panels with agriculture to improve farming. Byron Kominek, the owner and manager of Jack’s Solar Garden and the director of the Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Center, explains.

Mr. Kominek: My family has a farm here that’s 24 acres in size. It’s mainly been in grassland for a long time and we built a solar array on it to sell electricity to our community. And then we also work with researchers to learn more about agrivoltaics, the co-location of solar panels with vegetation. 

Ethan: Kominek says that these solar panels can provide significant benefits for farmers, even beyond the additional revenue they earn from them.

Mr. Kominek: I believe that cattle will be the holy grail of agrivoltaics. You put the panels up high enough to have cattle in the system, that really helps out a lot of ranchers that might be suffering with animals getting heat exhaustion. When you put the panels up a little bit higher in the air, that makes it so you can have machinery and animals and people working underneath it, and you can have vegetation that grows taller. Like, those, those types of leafy greens that we all really enjoy eating—they can grow two to five times larger underneath our solar panels. 

Ethan: Kominic wants to see local governments across the US help promote agrovoltaics. 

Mr. Kominek: So I really push for county level governments to take a look at how they can adapt their land use code language to help promote, improve land stewardship within solar arrays.

Ethan: To learn more about agrivoltaics, visit climatebreak.org.

Solar Power On Farms, with Byron Kominek