Empower Energies was pleased to attend the Solar Farm Summit on March 13-15, 2023 in Chicago, IL. The inaugural event was billed as the first North America Agrivoltaics Expo, inviting leaders in community solar and agrivoltaics, as well as agricultural consultants, landowners, and farmers from across the country. The turnout was spectacular. The sold-out event was so well received that plans to expand are in the works for next year. Here are some key takeaways, and reasons why we cannot wait for next year’s Solar Farm Summit.
1. Agrivoltaics is good for the environment
Agrivoltaics, a fusion of the words agriculture and photovoltaics, is an umbrella term that encompasses any symbiotic combination of solar and agriculture. In the session Agrivoltaics 101, Jordan McKnick of NREL spoke about the diversity of possible agrivoltaic solutions. Planting native pollinators under solar panels for example improves the health of the soil and supports local bee and butterfly populations.
Another increasingly popular agrivoltaics trend is employing sheep to graze at seasonally appropriate times to maintain the height of the foliage underneath the panels. The hooves of the sheep also help aerate the soil, while their waste improves the soil’s nitrogen content. Agrivoltaics, in its many evolving forms, aim to improve the quality of the land where solar panels are installed.
Photo Credit: Karl-Friedrich Hohl
2. Agrivoltaics is good for solar
The benefits of agrivoltaics are not just agricultural. Planting foliage underneath the solar arrays helps cool the panels, helping them run more efficiently which ultimately reduces maintenance costs. The beauty of agrivoltaics is that even for environmental skeptics, there is a clear business case for implementing an agricultural management program in tandem with a ground-mount solar system. Maximizing use of the land via agrivoltaics is ultimately an effective asset management strategy to ensure peak performance and ROI of the system.
3. Agrivoltaics benefits farmers and their communities
Farmers who choose to host a solar farm on their land for a community solar project gain a passive income stream while providing stable and affordable clean energy access to their local communities. In Agrivoltaics 101, Lucy Bullock-Sieger, VP of Strategy at Lightstar Renewables, spoke about their commitment to incorporating agrivoltaics within their solar projects to maximize the benefits to the farmer and the community. Empower Energies is proud to partner with Lightstar to develop community solar projects that use agrivoltaics.
Lucy Bullock-Seger, VP of Strategy, Lightstar Renewables speaking at Agrivoltaics 101 (photo courtesy of Lightstar Renewables)
4. Agrivoltaics is rapidly innovating, and in the right direction
Agrivoltaics is still a new concept, but the people driving its growth are grounded by partnerships with farmers, landowners, and farming consultants. These relationships ensure that the industry will innovate in a direction that recognizes issues farmers face and introduces agrivoltaic solutions to address them.
For example, a racking company called SolarGik is building lighter panels that can be more easily raised to allow room for traditional crops and the machinery that harvests them. Rather than simply adding solar on top of usable farmland, the goal is to prioritize a true integration of farming activity and solar.
Photo Credit: Jack’s Solar Farm – Photo by Werner Slocum: NREL
5. Agrivoltaics is still a new frontier for policy
Since agrivoltaics is such a new industry, it is still relatively unregulated, creating a tremendous opportunity to drive new policy that supports the movement. The session North American Agrivoltaics Policy Brief led by Jessica Guarino and Tyler Swanson of University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign stated very few states have zoning regulations that include agrivoltaics.
In the keynote session Solar Energy + Land Use Policy Roundtable, Lightstar Renewables Policy Manager Theodora Okiro Quarles spoke about how Lightstar was able to work alongside Illinois lawmakers to introduce agrivoltaics as part of their clean energy policy.
Solar Energy + Land Use Policy Roundtable. Pictured left to right: Pilar Thomas – Quarles & Brady LLP, Nathan L’Etoile – American Farmland Trust, Theodora Okiro Quarles – Lightstar Renewables, John Delurey – Vote Solar (photo courtesy of Lightstar Renewables)
Agrivoltaics is a cutting-edge frontier in the solar industry that is poised for massive growth in the coming years. It was heartening to attend the Solar Farm Summit and witness a collaborative community eager to openly share ideas, success stories, and lessons learned. Empower Energies is proud to be part of this movement and endeavors to educate its clients on the benefits of incorporating agrivoltaics in their solar projects. For more information on hosting a solar farm or developing a ground-mount project utilizing agrivoltaics, contact an Empower representative today.