“The idea behind agrivoltaics is simple: use the ‘empty’ space beneath solar panels to grow stuff.”

                                                ~ Gabe Allen and Tyler Hickman

On the hills above my town, there are some solar panels placed in the grassland. I’ve noticed that in spite of the panels, the shaded areas are full of vegetation that periodically require mowing. I’ve wondered how much the solar panels have disrupted the ecology in those relatively small areas. If we’re going to disrupt the natural vegetation, why couldn’t that space be used for growing something beneficial?

Well, it turns out that concept is being used in many places successfully. Gabe Allen and Tyler Hickman report, “Savory herbs, berry bushes, veggies and hay flourish between rows of elevated photovoltaic panels. Jack’s Solar Garden (in Colorado) is the largest commercially active research facility in the United States for ‘agrivoltaics,’ a land-use model that combines agriculture with solar power … the site grows produce for a local farm, produces enough electricity to power 300 homes and hosts researchers from three separate institutions.”

The concept explained by Allen and Hickman is just plain simple. We seek unused spaces for solar panels: rooftops, vacant lots, and we also place raised panels above parking lots to collect solar power and shade the cars. “For a farmer, the potential value of an agrivoltaic project is twofold. First, there is solar power itself, which the farm can use to power its operations or generate revenue through a lease agreement from a solar developer.”

“I was trying to figure out how to make my farm self-sufficient in a lot of respects — energy, soil health and water,” Colorado State Senator Cleave Simpson said. “All of these things kind of come together in this conversation around agrivoltaics.”

Allen and Hickman explain that there are many benefits to combining agriculture with solar power. “As the sun moves across the sky, the panels … track its course along a single axis. Below them, a shadow moves across the earth and rainwater is deposited along each panel’s downward edge. Before the farm became a solar garden, every square foot received approximately the same amount of sunlight and moisture. Now, the field is broken up into an array of ‘microclimates’… Diverse conditions within the same plot of land increase the opportunities to grow diverse crops. In pasture land, agrivoltaic installations might promote more diverse plants, insect pollinators and soil microbiota — essential elements for long-term sustainability.”

Of course, the concept doesn’t just apply to farms. Every gardener knows the various spots across their yard that are best for different plantings. I constructed our garden boxes in the sunniest corner of the yard to promote vegetable growth. I’ve come to recognize which flower beds are best for different plantings and what kind of adjustments I need to make in watering or fertilizing and cleaning the leaves out of the beds.

In Colorado with all our sunshine, solar panels make a lot of sense and should be used where ever they make sense, if not cents. Anyway, agrivoltaics can provide ‘green’ bucks, ‘green’ power and ‘green’, well, greenery. What a great ‘green’ idea!

Additional information:

Gabe Allen and Tyler Hickman, Why The Ground Under Solar Panels Is Ripe For Growing Food, January 22, 2023, The Colorado Sun

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