Interest in the emerging field of agrivoltaics has been exploding as researchers and farmers keep adding on to the list of ways to combine solar panels with agricultural activity. In the latest twist, an agrivoltaic project in California is aimed at restoring native prairie at the site of a decommissioned nuclear power plant.
Farming With Agrivoltaics
Agrivoltaics refers to the conduct of agricultural activity within a solar array. A relatively new field, agrivoltaics is a departure from the common practice of not really attempting to grow anything at all under a ground-mounted solar panel, except perhaps for some grass that needs to be mowed down at regular intervals.
Initial versions of agrivoltaics were confined mainly to cultivating pollinator habitats and grazing lands in and around the arrays. More recently, researchers and farmers have been exploring more sophisticated applications that involve growing consumables and preserving whole industries.
Loosely speaking, agrivoltaics can also include simply resting arable land for the lifespan of the solar array, enabling soil health to rebuild for eventual re-use as cropland. That scenario has already attracted the interest of global big-ag stakeholders seeking to leverage the carbon sequestration capability of soil for bottom line benefits.
From Nuclear Energy To Solar Power
The team behind the California project consists of the Electric Power Research Institute and SMUD (the Sacramento Municipal Utility District) in collaboration with the University of California, Davis, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments, and NovaSource Power.
The site of the project is Rancho Seco, a former SMUD nuclear facility that was taken offline in 1989 after a series of troublesome incidents and a vote of no confidence from the public.
The 2,000-acre site was eventually repurposed for the Cosumnes natural gas power plant, which clocks in at 1,000 megawatts. Last year, SMUD also added the 160-megawatt Rancho Seco Solar II solar array.
In terms of agrivoltaics, Rancho Seco Solar II reflects a design approach that allows for pollinator plantings and livestock grazing, and not much else besides.
However, that is enough for EPRI and its partners. They prefer the term “restorative energy” for their project, reflecting the aim of restoring native habitat on a permanent basis rather than reconditioning the land for commercial use.
“The project team will create a pollinator habitat under established solar panels and measure changes in energy, soil carbon and management costs at the Rancho Seco restorative energy site,” EPRI explains. “Expected outcomes include the establishment of native plant species promoting pollinator habitats and soil carbon monitoring.
Agrivoltaics Will Drink Your Fossil Energy Milkshake
If all goes according to plan, the Rancho Seco project will help kick the rural solar trend into high gear. In addition to the immediate aim of prairie restoration at the site itself, Rancho Seco will also serve as an R&D platform for future projects.
“The Rancho Seco project is a unique collaboration at the intersection of communities, biodiversity, and climate-friendly energy,” said Jessica Fox, who is the senior technical executive and conservation biologist at EPRI. “Successful demonstration could provide the blueprint for future renewable energy projects throughout the country that are restorative not just in their kilowatts, but also for local people and biodiversity.”
The Electric Vehicle Connection
Overshadowing the agrivoltaics movement is the issue of access to solar by rural communities. The nation’s sprawling network of rural electric cooperatives is beginning to help improve access, and federal policies have promoted solar development in rural areas. Nevertheless, rural communities continue to lag behind the rest of the nation in solar adoption, a gap that is consistent with an overall lag in solar adoption by low- and middle-income households.
That gap showed signs of growing this year, alongside a new surge in opposition to new rural solar projects. Agrivoltaics could help solar developers and policymakers counterbalance the opposition by demonstrating the potential for agricultural activity to continue within the array.
Closing the rural solar gap could have a ripple effect on other areas of clean tech that have been slow on the uptake outside of cities and suburbs. Specifically, access to solar power could help ramp up the lagging pace of electric vehicle adoption in rural communities.
That could provide follow-on benefits in the form of storm resiliency in rural communities. One leading example is Ford, which has been promoting its Lightning F-150 electric pickup truck as a sort of rolling, rechargeable power station on wheels.
The Case For Agrivoltaics Plus EV Charging
Last March, the journal Nature published a case study from a research team at the University of Oregon, who examined the feasibility of deploying agrivoltaic systems in combination with EV charging stations along rural roads in their home state.
“Electrification of the transportation industry is necessary; however, range anxiety has proven to be a major hindrance to individuals adopting electric vehicles,” the authors wrote. “Agrivoltaic systems (AVS) can facilitate the transition to EVs by powering EV charging stations along major rural roadways, increasing their density and mitigating range anxiety.”
The researchers filtered out wetlands, forests, and other protected lands at highway access points, and focused on south-facing sites. They determined that 86% of the filtered group would be suitable for agrivoltaic development with EV charging stations. Among those sites, only 3% of the available land would be taken up by the solar and charging facilities, for a total of 5,000 hectares (a hectare is equivalent to 2.47 acres).
Even if just a fraction of the sites were developed, the impact could be significant. In all, the researchers identified 231 suitable sites for agrivoltaic charging stations, with a median distance of 3.6 miles between them. They projected that charging stations in rural Oregon could support the equivalent of almost 674,000 EVs per year under that scenario.
Next Steps For Agrivoltaics
The chicken-and-egg problem for rural EV charging is a significant obstacle, but local electric pickup truck owners could help swing the tide in favor of rural solar.
In the meantime, GM is working on a rural EV charging solution that enlists its local dealers to host public EV charging stations, just in time to leverage marketing for a new all-electric version of its Chevy Silverado pickup.
The Biden administration has also been busy. Phase II of the Agriculture Department’s “Climate-Smart Commodities” program leans on regenerative agriculture principles as well as well as agrivoltaics, and last week the Energy Department chipped in with another $8 million in funding to promote solar panels on farms.
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Photo: Agrivoltaics in action at the Rancho Seco Solar II array in California (by Jessica Fox, EPRI).
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