From Spotlight Delaware – Solar on stilts: UD to study how farmland, arrays can coexist – delawarebusinessnow.com

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This story was produced by Spotlight Delaware, a community-powered, collaborative, nonprofit newsroom covering the First State. Learn more at spotlightdelaware.org 

 By  Maddy Lauria
Farmers and solar developers have increasingly been at odds as agricultural land has been the easiest to convert into major arrays, but also takes prime farmland off the market. A new project could help to bridge the gap between them.

Imagine driving along rural routes of the First State and instead of seeing farm fields full of corn, wheat or soybeans, acres were planted with a variety of fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and lettuce beneath a rotating canopy of two-story-tall solar panel arrays sharing those sunbeams.

That futuristic view is still a ways off. But a mini research version will be built this summer on two University of Delaware-owned agricultural areas in Georgetown and Newark. There, UD researchers are working with California-based company SolAgra to test a new technology that could help traditional farming and renewable energy coexist. 

“Here, when they lease it to a solar company, it goes out of agricultural production and people are upset with that. With our approach, you could combine the two,” UD electrical and computer engineering professor Steve Hegedus explained. “Farmers or landowners can keep their land in agricultural production and help the clean energy economy to grow and stay in business and help the environment.”

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Instead of sitting stationary a few feet off the ground, these arrays will be placed about 16 feet above the soil on a platform of panels that can tilt and rotate as needed to allow sun to pass through to the plants underneath — whether that means the automated and manually operated panels separate or tilt to let the rays through. They’re also designed to be tall enough to allow a standard tractor to pass below.

“It’s big enough to prove the concept to have a variety of crops underneath,” Hegedus said. “This is a very modular technology. You could replicate this footprint many times to give you the size and coverage .”

The 70-by-100-foot prototypes will be studied over the next three growing seasons, he said. Hegedus, who also serves as a senior scientist at UD’s Institute of Energy Conversion, has been involved in solar photovoltaic research and applications for more than 35 years, according to UD.

Over the next few years, Hegedus and his colleague Gordon Johnson, a professor with UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, will collect data on soil moisture, air moisture, sunlight amounts reaching crops, crop temperature, yield and more, as well as information on electric generation and financial benefit while growing high-value crops that enjoy shade, like tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and strawberries.

These will be the first prototypes put into action, SolAgra Project Manager Winston Friedman said. The hope is to prove that the lanky solar arrays can work in tandem with the agricultural demands on the same plot of land, providing shade in extreme heat or protection in the face of more extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change

The company and researchers say they could also help offset the need for irrigating more heat-sensitive plants, since the structure itself could help create a “microclimate” that cools plants in extreme heat. As the panels soak up the solar energy, they could also provide farmers with a new revenue stream that doesn’t require giving up their agricultural heritage. 

Friedman said there’s a variety of “deal structure” options: It’s possible that farmers could purchase the solar arrays or rent them from SolAgra, or that solar companies could rent land from the farmer and run the equipment. As for cost, Friedman was hesitant to name prices because of the modular nature of the technology, but suggested they’d cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. A press release issued by SolAgra noted the UD researchers “obtained a grant to both build and study an agrivoltaic farm,” but Hegedus would not specify funding sources for the project.

Meanwhile, a clash has been brewing on whether solar arrays are suitable for American farms. A recent article in USA Today found that 15% of counties across the country have adopted bans on or blocked new utility-scale wind and/or solar projects. In Delaware, officials in Kent County have been grappling in recent years with land-use approaches to proposed large-scale solar projects, most recently with a moratorium on new projects. The state has committed to significantly increasing the amount of power that comes from renewable energy sources like solar over the next decade.

Researchers say countries need to ramp up their production of renewable energy sources while moving away from fossil fuels to address the ongoing climate crisis. More generally, agrivoltaics — when land is dually used to generate solar power and host agricultural products like fruits and vegetables — has been in development worldwide since the 1980s.

The timing of this project is seemingly serendipitous. Hegedus said he started looking several years ago for unique patents like the one now held by SolAgra when he found this new-ish approach to agrivoltaics.

“Our hope is to really support farmers to continue farming on their land without destroying it,” SolAgra’s Friedman said. “Solar sales is just another way for them to harvest more production off their land. It can be another crop in the farmer’s eyes. That’s what we’re hoping, at least.”

Editor’s note: Maddy Lauria, a freelancer based in Dover, previously worked for the University of Delaware’s College of Engineering.

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