Agrovoltaics Could Help Calm Fears About Renewables For Iowa Farmers

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Believe it or not, not everyone is a fan of renewable energy. People complain about wind turbines, saying they create an subliminal noise as the blades rotate that is irritating to those who live or work nearby. Others dislike how the rotating blades create flickering shadows. And of course, if you listen to some people, wind turbines “kill all the birds — all the birds.”

Image: Zach Shahan |

Solar panels don’t make any noise or flicker but they obviously cover a portion of the Earth, which prevents other things from occupying the same space (more on that subject later). Some people oppose clearing land to erect solar farms, arguing the trees that are cut down are more important to the environment than a few more kilowatts of zero emission electricity.

And as with everything else, there are plenty of people who oppose any changes to their community on NIMBY grounds — put it anywhere else, just as long as I don’t have to look at it. Which raises a very important point. Who gets to say where renewable energy installations are located? If a state has a renewable energy standard that requires utility companies to derive a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources, does that same state have the right to dictate where those facilities are built? Or do members of local communities get to decide what is best for their neighborhoods?

These sorts of conflicting considerations are playing out in Iowa at the moment. Iowa has the second largest amount of installed wind power of any US state with lots more on the way. It has a small amount of solar power as well but as the price of renewables continues to fall, utility companies are anxious to add more.

If you are talking about Iowa, you are talking about farmers. As the 2020 legislative session kicks off in that state, one of the topics on the agenda will be crafting the rules that control where renewable projects can go and how much local control will be permitted. A few hundred miles east of Iowa is the great state of Ohio, where recent legislation has placed so many restrictions on where wind turbines can be erected that little if any new investment in wind energy is planned. The good people of Ohio love to breath in the toxic fumes emitted from numerous local coal generating plants, apparently.

According to the Des Moines Register, the Iowa Farm Board is urging the legislature to draw up siting regulations that would be applicable statewide. At present, the siting process is a hodgepodge of local rules that vary considerably from county to county. But would those statewide standards be restrictive like those in Ohio or more supportive of the desires of the utility industry as in Texas?

The members of the farm bureau are particularly concerned about land that could be used to cultivate crops being taken out of production in order to install wind turbines or solar farms. Being a farmer is no easy thing in America today. Many farmers are under intense financial pressure due to many years of sub-par harvests. Much of their problem can be traced to too much rain or too little rain as changes in climate disrupt traditional weather patterns.

3,000 Megawatts Of New Solar

Of particular concern are plans to ramp up the amount of solar power installed in Iowa. Wind turbines can be sited so as to not interfere with the growing of crops or raising of cattle. And the lease payments for land are a godsend to many cash strapped farmers. There are currently about 20 solar projects proposed across the state. If all of them are completed, they would add about 3,000 megawatts of clean energy to the state’s utility grid. While that may seem like a good thing, “We know to create that much energy, it could potentially take thousands of acres out of production,” the Farm Bureau tells its members.

Kerri Johannsen, the Iowa Environmental Council’s energy director, tells the Register only 1% of Iowa’s electricity comes from solar today. Only about 13,000 acres of land would be needed to increase that to 10% — 0.4% of all the farmland in Iowa. “I know there’s concern,” Johannsen said, and “people should think about what it means, but it’s not a substantial amount of land coming out of product, even with high levels of solar penetration.”

Bill Cherrier, CEO of Central Iowa Power Cooperative, the state’s largest cooperative energy provider, said most solar developers “won’t be looking at prime farmland.” Instead, they’ll look for “subprime land that’s probably not used or regularly used for production.” Indeed, few solar projects target prime agricultural land. They tend to target so-called brownfields, land that has been degraded by prior industrial or commercial use that would cost to much to remediate.


agrivoltaics Fraunhofer

Farmers should also be aware that there are ways to combine agriculture and solar in a way that enhances both. Experiments by Fraunhofer ISE in Germany show that when both are used together, the productivity of land can increase by up to 60%. Researchers at the University of Arizona have verified those results with their own experiments. What farmer wouldn’t be happy with such a boost? The farming community spends billions on fertilizers and pesticides each year to gain small increases in productivity.

In France, the Compagnie Nationale du Rhône, a division of French oil and gas company Engie that focuses on renewable energy, is developing a 150 kW agrophotovoltaic project near Lyon that will use portable solar arrays. “The mounting structure of solar panels constitutes an agricultural tool at the service of the plant, making it possible to protect crops from climatic hazards and to reduce their water needs,” says CNR in a statement reported by PV Magazine.

Over a period of three years, half of a 6,000 square meter farm will be covered with solar panels while the other half will be farmed conventionally. “The aim of the experiment is to demonstrate that the management of a micro-climate generated by the mobile solar panels deployed above the crop areas makes it possible to protect [crops], to increase their productivity [and] to reduce water consumption while … meeting the essential needs of the plant,” says CNR.

The project is supported in part by the local government as part of its climate adaptation program for farmers. The objective is to support new agricultural techniques for crops such as hops, sorghum and alfalfa that are better adapted to the changing climatic conditions of the soil.

“Here we have a very innovative project for which the region has a very particular interest, insofar as it is geared towards preserving the environment, that it promotes a model of sustainable agriculture and that it involves our high school students in the construction of a future project that could set a precedent,” said Eric Fournier, regional vice-president responsible for the environment, sustainable development, energy and regional natural parks.

Corn, which is Iowa’s largest crop and central to the financial health of the farming community, is not part of the experiment and so there is no data available on how agrophotovoltaics might apply to growing it. But the possibilities should appeal to the Iowa farming community. Higher yields from the land coupled with income from permitting solar structures to be built might take away the fear that solar is the enemy of farmers.

In the end, farming and solar may not be an “either/or” proposition. The correct answer for the farming community may very well be “both.”

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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