Giving Compass' Take:
- Maria Gallucci reports that cash-strapped farms are installing solar panels to diversify and increase their income.
- Gallucci highlights some barriers to implementing solar panel farms at scale, how can funders work to address these challenges?
- Read about the solar industry in the United States.
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The Kominek family farm is a green expanse of hay and alfalfa in northern Colorado. The family has planted and raked crops for half a century, but as yields declined over recent years, the farm began losing money. In late 2017, Byron Kominek went looking for more profitable alternatives, including installing solar panels and selling electricity to the utility. But Boulder County’s land-use codes made it difficult to use their 24 acres for anything but farming.
So the Komineks found a compromise: a solar array with plants growing beneath, between, and around rows of photovoltaic panels.
Construction is slated to begin this spring on a 1.2-megawatt solar array on the Kominek farm. Some 3,300 solar panels will rest on 6-foot and 8-foot-high stilts, providing shade for crops like tomatoes, peppers, kale, and beans on a five-acre plot. Pasture grasses and beehive boxes are planned for the perimeter.
“Now there will be potentially more food grown in the community, more renewable energy, and more revenue to local farms,” said Kominek, 37, whose late grandfather Jack bought the farm in 1972.
If successful, the project could serve as a model for other cash-strapped farmers, by transforming underperforming fields into potentially money-making hubs of clean energy and fresh food.
Beyond research sites, however, pairing corn and other cash crops with solar may present significant challenges. On existing plots, smaller tractors can navigate the narrow spaces between rows of panels. But combine harvesters and other industrial equipment are too wide and bulky to fit through the gaps. Most crops grown beneath panels must be picked by hand. The work is manageable at the scale of a community garden, but it can be grueling, back-breaking work at an industrial scale. Farmers are developing machines to pick strawberries, melons, and tomatoes, which also might bump against the panels.
For farms big and small, a lack of rural infrastructure remains a “key impediment” to boosting adoption of agrivoltaics, said Chad Higgins, an associate professor of biological and ecological engineering at Oregon State University. Power lines and electrical equipment might not be equipped to handle the addition of solar power. Roads and communications networks likewise might need to be expanded to support far-flung operations, he said.
Read the full article about farms turning to solar panels by Maria Gallucci at Grist.