Agrivoltaics = Solar Panels + Agriculture
Most solar installations are developed with single seed turf or bare ground beneath the panels. The grass seed is inexpensive and can be easily managed by application of pesticides and occasional mowing. This type of vegetation management under panels can lead to decreased water retention, less soil stability, reduced carbon sequestration, and loss of habitat for pollinators, birds, and wildlife.
Since the life of a regular solar panel can be 25 or more years, the solar developments installed in the early 2020s will likely occupy the land until the 2040s and 2050s.
The decisions we make today regarding vegetation choice beneath solar panels will influence the health of hundreds of thousands of acres of land.
Image by Werner Slocum/NREL
There are alternatives to turf and bare ground under solar panels. The co-location of solar and beneficial agriculture is referred to “agrivoltaics.”
Types of Agrivoltaics
Benefits of Agrivoltaics
Less water is needed for some plants to produce the same yield or more. Native plantings improve water retention resulting in less water runoff.
Plant biodiversity and native plants with deep roots stabilize soils and increase carbon sequestration.
Higher Crop Yields
Some plants produce a larger yields in arid regions when grown under panels.
Crops are better protected from high winds and hail, reducing risk of crop destruction.
Planting native plants supports local ecosystems, encouraging insects, birds and wildlife to use the location.
Revenues from land leases, electricity sales and/or specialty ‘solar crop’ marketing strategies can help support farming families.
Although a novel concept in the United States, agrivoltaic practices have been employed throughout other parts of the world. The concept of agrivoltaics started in Japan which now has more than 1,000 agrivoltaic installations. Germany and France are other leaders in the industry and India and China are starting to adopt the practice as well. The United States is just beginning to develop agrivoltaic practices.
Photo: Creative Commons
Agrivoltaics in Colorado
Colorado State University, in partnership with Sandbox Solar of Fort Collins, has been researching the effects of small scale solar panels on plants since 2018.
Photo: Werner Slocum/NREL
A five acre 1.2 MW community solar garden south of Longmont working with the University of Arizona, Colorado State University, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Sprout City Farms to create research plots.
Photo: Boulder Weekly
In 2019, the City of Fort Collins, Namaste, and Solaris Energy partnered to create a 1MW pollinator friendly solar installation. The project will plant “hyper-local” native seed mixes.
Twelve sheep graze this 10MW, 55 acre solar array, outside of Boulder as an environmentally friendly way of managing the vegetation growth.
Note this is not a comprehensive list of agrivoltaic sites in Colorado.
If you have an agrivoltaic site in Colorado we should know about, let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.