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Agriculture

Published on November 1st, 2019 | by Tina Casey

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Look Out Coal, Here Come The Cranberry Bogs, With Solar Panels

November 1st, 2019 by  


As if the US coal industry isn’t suffering enough from the slings and arrows of low cost natural gas and renewable energy, now the cranberry farmers are piling on. They are laying plans to piggyback arrays of solar panels onto their vast cranberry bogs. That sure puts the Trump administration in a pickle. After all, the Commander-in-Chief did promise to bring back coal jobs and do something for farmers, too. Something’s gotta give!

solar panels cranberry farms Massachusetts

New renewable energy incentives could help Massachusetts cranberry growers install solar panels (screenshot via mass.gov).

Solar Panels On Farms

Like other farmers across the US, cranberry farmers have been hurting under the Trump administration, partly due to the trade war with China. Meanwhile, competition from overseas growers is rising. Growers in China, Chile and elsewhere are taking advantage of opportunities to establish larger, more efficient cranberry bogs.

US farmers of all stripes are desperate for new revenue, and renewable energy is coming through. Leasing out land for wind turbines or installing wind turbines for on-site power generation are already proven money-makers. Converting farmland to vast arrays of solar panels is another option.

The problem is that both options take land out of agricultural circulation. Agrivoltaics — combining crop-growing with solar panels — provides a solution.

The idea behind agrivoltaics is fairly straightforward. By raising the panels about eight feet above the ground, enough sunlight can get through for some agricultural uses.

So far, one area of focus has been to build solar panels on grazing areas and poultry spaces. Raised solar arrays are also being used in pollinator habitats.

Growing food crops under solar panels presents some challenges, partly because of the shade and also because the panels can inhibit the use of large machines.

However, some crops can grow better in shaded areas, especially in hot climates where the panels provide a beneficial cooling effect.

Cranberries In Massachusetts

With that in mind, take a look at what’s going on in Massachusetts. In 2016, the state took a long, hard look at the troubles faced by its cranberry industry. Solar energy was not on the top of its recommendation list, but it could help.

Last year the state established the new “SMART” incentive package for solar development, and cranberry growers have been among the first to explore the new program’s implications for agriculture.

Based on the results from at least one pre-SMART solar bog in Massachusetts, solar panels can have mixed results. While helping to offset costs, they can reduce berry production in shaded areas.

On the other hand, cranberry vines can still grow under solar panels. Growers can use the shaded areas to grow vines for resale.

The Solar Panel Wait-And-See

The Associated Press reports that a handful of solar projects are in the SMART incentive pipeline, including one that has already been approved.

The prospects for success are encouraging, but researchers caution that the jury is still out. In addition to berry production, researchers are assessing quality factors including the red-hot color associated with top quality cranberries, which is closely linked to sunlight.

According to AP, farmers are also facing opposition from nearby residents, a not uncommon problem when farmers seek to install large solar arrays in rural areas. The uproar is fomenting skittishness among policy makers, who are already floating the idea of reducing the size of solar projects allowable under the SMART program.

The size restrictions could take some potential projects off the table, which could explain why the world’s leading grower, A.D. Makepeace, is sitting out the fray for now.

Look Out, Here Comes NRECA

The Massachusetts cranberry experiment is still up in the air, but there are signs that the agrivoltaics movement is primed to accelerate nationwide.

One key factor to watch is the vast network of rural electric cooperatives in the US. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association has embraced renewable energy, and it has already been working with the Department of Energy on a “Solar Toolkit” to accelerate solar adoption.

So far NRECA has been quiet on the topic of agrivoltaics, but advocacy groups are already reaching out to co-op member farmers to encourage solar-related projects like pollinator habitats and prairie restoration.

CleanTechnica is reaching out to NRECA for its insights, so stay tuned for more on that.

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Image (screenshot): Massachusetts Cranberry Revitalization Task Force 2016 Report. 
 

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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