Volunteer State (Finally) Discovers Solar Power — With A Regenerative Twist

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Whelp, there goes the anti-solar neighborhood. A shrinking handful of US states have yet to join the solar power revolution, and the handful just shrank a little more now that Tennessee is adding a new 70-megawatt solar project to its stable of PV arrays. This particular project is also of interest because it sports a regenerative agriculture angle, and that could help spark more solar activity in a state where more than 40% of the land is farmland.

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Solar Power Plus Farming In Tennessee

For those of you new to the topic, regenerative agriculture refers to practices that build healthier soil and conserve water. Solar power comes into the picture through the fast-growing field of agrivoltaics, in which solar panels are raised a few feet higher off the ground than the typical array. Shade from the panels helps prevent evaporation, and the taller height enables farmers to continue farming within the solar array.

For the most part, agrivoltaic arrays host low-maintenance agricultural uses, such as grazing lands and pollinator habitats, though some growers are beginning to experiment with vegetable crops.

Tennessee’s agricultural scene is dominated by soybeans and corn, which do not lend themselves to agrivoltaic arrays, at least not until the robots take over. However, livestock is another leading use of farmland in Tennessee, and it could be possible for agrivoltaics to grab a toehold in the grazing space.

Solar Power Plus Mushrooms…And Cannabis!

Another up-and-coming crop in Tennessee shows a little more promise for agrivoltaics. If you guessed mushrooms, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. The Volunteer State is not particularly known for its mushrooms, but apparently the state’s Department of Agriculture is trying to get something going.

The solar angle comes in when you take a look over at Japan back in 2017, when the Tokyo firm Sustainergy hooked up with Hitachi Capital (now Mitsubishi Capital) and the company Daiwa House Industry in a plan to help farmers grow mushrooms on underused farmland, with an assist from solar power.

If you know what happened to that project, drop us a note in the comment thread. Meanwhile, solar industry stakeholders are speculating that the legalization of marijuana will enable more cannabis to be grown outdoors instead of hidden away indoors, so that’s another possible avenue for agrivoltaics.

Solar Activity Heating Up In Tennessee

Where were we? Oh right, Tennessee’s new solar power plant. A double-digit array of 70 megawatts might not sound all that impressive in the era of triple-digit and gigawatt-scale solar development, but it is a big deal in Tennessee.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, as of last year Tennessee only had 367.9 megawatts of installed solar capacity in its pocket, so 70 megawatts for just one new project is a big jump up.

In another sign of growing activity, SEIA put Tennessee down at #42 in its 50-state ranking of installed solar capacity just two years ago, and by last year it had climbed up to the #34 slot. SEIA anticipates that Tennessee will jump up to a respectable #19 in the next five years.

The new 70-megawatt project also indicates that Tennessee could be shifting out of the small-scale solar doldrums. Until recent years, the biggest array in the state weighed in at a mere 14 megawatts. That title was clobbered in 2019 by a 53-megawatt array developed by the Nashville based solar firm Silicon Ranch, which has become parent company Shell’s showcase for solar development in the U.S. That project was a public-private partnership that paired the City of Millington with the US Navy, the utility Memphis Light, Gas and Water, and the powerful Tennessee Valley Authority.

The Regenerative Agriculture Angle

The new 70-megawatt solar array , dubbed the McKellar Solar Farm, is another Silicon Ranch project, and since the company is known for its interest in the agrivoltaics field, it’s no surprise to see a regenerative angle.

Silicon Ranch grabbed the media spotlight when it broke ground on the new array in Madison County last week, mainly on account of the involvement of Meta, formerly known as Facebook.

“The McKellar Solar Farm will help support Meta’s regional operations with 100% renewable energy,” Silicon Ranch explained, but that’s not what makes the project of particular interest.

Silicon Ranch also noted that project comes under the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Green Invest program, which is interesting because TVA has taken a lot of hits for being slow on the renewable energy draw. Lately, though, TVA has begun to answer calls by industry stakeholders, including Ford Motor Company, for more clean power in its sprawling territory in the US southeast, and Silicon Ranch is along for the ride.

As is its practice, Silicon Ranch will own, operate, and maintain the new solar farm. That tight control supports the company’s focus on clean tech education in local schools, which is important as the next generation of farmers, workers and innovators reaches voting age and gets to decide whether or not Tennessee should continue growing its profile in regenerative farming and renewable energy.

“As part of its commitment to the communities where it locates, Silicon Ranch plans to support additional educational outreach opportunities to help inspire students about the role projects such as the McKellar Solar Farm can play in the energy transition,” Silicon Ranch explains.

“The solar farm will also provide additional employment for ongoing operations and maintenance, including ranchers and farmers to care for the land as part of Silicon Ranch’s Regenerative Energy® holistic approach to land management,” they add.

Wait, What About Georgia?

As yet another signal that the solar wall is crumbling, Silicon Ranch is also behind another recently announced Meta project in the increasingly solar-friendly of Georgia.

Georgia seemed destined to be a solar wallflower back during the Obama administration, but the US Department of Defense (see a pattern there?), kickstarted activity in the Peach State with a 90-megawatt, “3×30” series of solar projects announced back in 2014.

As of last year, Georgia held down the impressive #7 slot in the SEIA 50-state ranking, with an installed capacity listed at 4,268.5 megawatts.

There is more on the way, and soon. Earlier this month, Silicon Ranch announced that it won the contract to build a 70-megawatt Cedar Spring Solar Ranch regenerative solar project in Early County, Georgia.

The new array will feed clean kilowatts to Green Power EMC, which provides energy to 38 Georgia electric cooperatives when it comes online sometime later this year.

Silicon Ranch has engaged the firm IEA Constructors to build the new array. If you’re in the area looking for hands-on training or skilled solar work, come to Silicon Ranch’s job fair on April 26, 1:30 PM-6:30 PM and April 27, 9:30 AM-2:30 PM at the National Peanut Festival Volunteer Building, 5622 Highway 231 S in Dothan, Alabama. Or, apply online at IEA.net, or drop an email to recruit@iea.net.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: Regenerative farming with solar power in Tennessee, courtesy of Silicon Ranch via Cision.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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