Here’s a fact you probably haven’t considered before: America, from Maine to Alaska and down to Hawaii, encompasses over 3.5 million square miles of space. With all of that land, it would seem like there’s plenty of room for everyone. But as with everything else, some land is more desirable than others.
This is true when it comes to large solar arrays, installations that require a lot of land. A one-megawatt solar installation requires about four acres of land, depending on the panels used. A ten megawatt solar farm requires 40 acres, land that would easily accommodate a small farming operation.
The best locations for solar farms are large tracts of open land, preferably flat, with great exposure to sun and with temperate rather than tropical rainfall. This is exactly the type of land attractive to agriculture as large scale row crops like corn and wheat grow better in cooler, dry areas. So it’s no surprise that solar developers and agriculture advocates butt heads over the best use of prime farmland.
In previous blogs, we’ve discussed alternative locations for solar farms and other medium to large solar installations. This includes retired mines that are difficult and costly to rehabilitate into productive land, but often perfectly suited for solar arrays. Here’s a perfect example of mine-to-solar. Last year, the federal government extended $500,000 in grants to convert a coal mine in southwestern Virginia to a solar farm. Sun Tribe Solar partnered with the owner of the Mineral Gap Data Centers on the proposed $4.6 million solar project on the mine, which was retired in 1957. The project is expected to generate 3.5 megawatts of renewable power on a site not used in over 60 years!
Other alternative sites are retention ponds and lakes for water treatment. In this scenario, the site becomes dual functioning, fulfilling necessary water processing functions while the solar panels installed over the water’s surface generate electricity. This approach, while new in the United States, is popular in Asia where land is scarce. I wrote about flotovoltaics here.
Finally, there’s a huge opportunity on the rooftops of America’s growing network of distribution centers. Amazon, Target, and Walmart have all installed rooftop solar. Less than a month ago, Ashley Furniture completed one of the largest rooftop solar systems in the United States with 28,776 roof-mounted solar panels installed on a advanced manufacturing and distribution facility in Pennsylvania capable to generating nearly eight megawatts of electricity a year.
The Agrivoltaics Connection
If solar energy continues to grow as expected, the appetite for land will, too. So we have to get creative about land use for solar and agriculture. The connection point may be agrivoltaics, which refers to the dual use of farmland for solar power generation and farming. Those experimenting with the combination of solar and farming are reporting encouraging results.
The challenge lies in making this combination as good for farming as it is for solar. For example, traditional row crops like the corn and soybeans grown in the Midwest require hundreds if not acres of open land managed with huge tractors and combines. Solar arrays in the middle of fields would eliminate the ability to grow and manage such crops. So something’s got to give. Here are some options.
Rethink how and where solar panels are installed. Solar panels would be installed higher with more space between rows and the ability to tilt panels out of the way so crops can be planted and harvested with traditional equipment. Another option is to install solar arrays on the perimeters of fields, leaving the majority of the acreage unimpeded for equipment and plant growth.
Redesign farm equipment. Agrivoltaics may drive innovation in machinery. Companies like John Deere and Rippa are developing smaller, driverless, electric tractor prototypes. These low-profile systems could be designed to navigate solar farms with greater flexibility, managing crops and energy production at the same time.
Identify crops that thrive under and around solar panels. Plants growing in the shade of solar panels need less water, meaning growing them becomes cheaper. And while the idea of growing plants in the shade of solar panels might sound sub-optimal for the plants, some crops perform better in terms of yield per acre with less direct sun. This includes berries, leafy greens, herbs, and coffee. While not a high volume crops, it is a way to get dual use from land.
Switch to livestock. Solar farms can also see dual use with some types of livestock. Already sheep have proven to partner perfectly with solar arrays as they consume the grass and other vegetation under and around the arrays without damaging equipment. To accommodate larger animals like cattle and pigs, which can also damage solar systems, accommodations would have to be made on how the solar arrays are installed to keep them out of harm’s way and functioning. In the plus column, livestock would appreciate the shade. If you’ve ever seen how a herd of cows clusters under one small tree you know what I’m talking about!
Plant pollinator habitat under the solar arrays. Bees and other pollinators have been in decline for decades and agriculture depends on pollinators to stay in business. So it makes sense to combine natural habitat for bees and butterflies under solar systems in farmlands. Not only does this support crop pollination, honey is also a valuable farm commodity. Too, pollinator habitats eliminate the need for maintaining the land under the arrays, which is a significant cost.
Innovation and Collaboration Are Key. Traditional farms and solar farms can coexist but it will require working together for the best solutions for society at large. Both the energy and agriculture industries have some pretty smart people—hey, just look at my colleagues at Solential and the innovative solar solutions we provide—so I am certain that in the future we can satisfy the world food and energy needs. I know I am excited by the work we’re doing with commercial solar across the Midwest for cities, communities, farms, businesses, schools, water treatment plants, and even jails!
If you’d like to learn more about the opportunities within commercial solar or about the many financing opportunities that make solar more affordable than ever to farms, business and cities, let’s connect! You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or via text or call at 317-627-4530.