Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Image by Cynthia Shahan/CleanTechnica.


Agrivoltaics Is Making Friends Across Partisan Lines, Thanks To Farmers

Agrivoltaics beats fossil fuels with a bottom line case for farmers to install solar panels on their land.

Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!

US farmers are warming up to agrivoltaics, a specialized field of renewable energy development that co-locates solar arrays with grazing fields, row crops, pollinator habitats, and other forms of agricultural activity. The rise of this dual-use movement comes at a fortunate time for solar advocates, as it can soften the opposition to rural solar with a bottom line case for farmers. After all, who doesn’t support farmers?

Bipartisan Support For Agrivoltaics

The latest demonstration of bipartisan support for agrivoltaics comes from the offices of US Senators Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Mike Braun of Indiana. They introduced the new Agrivoltaics Research and Demonstration Act of 2023 in the Senate on May 31.

Senator Heinrich is a Democrat, so his support for agrivoltaics is no surprise. The man-bites-dog story here is Senator Braun, who is a Republican. His home state of Indiana is among those in which Republican office holders are crusading against ESG (environment, social, governance) investing principles and something they call “woke capitalism.”

In fact, Braun himself has co-sponsored federal legislation aimed at stopping the Biden administration from “funding woke ESG projects with Americans’ retirements.”

Nevertheless, the Agrivoltaics Act is aimed at helping farmers turn a profit by co-locating solar panels on their farmland, so that’s different. In a press release announcing the new bill, Braun firmly asserted that solar power is good for business.

“When we can help farmers and producers get more income out of their croplands, it’s a win,” Braun stated.

“This bill will research agrivoltaics — solar panel systems that can be deployed over crops that can benefit from partial shading during the day — and how they can help farmers get more out of their fields,” he added.

Heinrich didn’t have much more to say. “Agrivoltaics keeps farmland in production, generates clean energy, and strengthens rural economies,” he stated, somewhat obviously.

Solar Power & The Farm Of The Future

Agrivoltaic researchers have been assembling evidence that the partial shade of solar panels can improve crop yields while conserving water and soil. The relationship is reciprocal, as the vegetation beneath the array creates a cooling microclimate that improves solar conversion efficiency (see more CleanTechnica coverage here).

The idea has already gained widespread acceptance, but the underlying research is still a work in progress. Heinrich and Braun aim to accelerate the learning curve through the new bill. It directs the US Department of Agriculture to conduct a soup to nuts state-of-the-science review. USDA is also tasked with defining agrivoltaic systems into existing federal programs.

In addition, the bill deploys the USDA’s existing Agricultural Research Service network to drill down into the bottom line cases for agrivoltaics, including general productivity and profitability as well as resilience, biodiversity, and community economic development.

“ARS will collaborate with USDA Climate Hubs and extension programs to translate research findings into educational and actionable technical assistance materials for farmers and ranchers,” the senators explain.

Follow The Money To Agrivoltaics

Funding for the new bill is a measly $15 million per year for the fiscal years 2024-2028, but a little can go a long way considering that USDA can leverage existing resources, including programs that are already under way.

On June 30, for example, USDA pointed out that its National Institute of Food and Agriculture division is supporting a multi-partner agrivoltaic project called SCAPES for “Sustainably Co-locating Agricultural and Photovoltaic Electricity Systems.”

The program is led by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, with assists from the University of Arizona, Colorado State University, Auburn University, the University of Illinois Chicago and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

As with the Agrivoltaics Act, SCAPES emphasizes bottom line benefits to farmers.

“Its goal is to maintain or increase crop yield; increase the combined (food and electricity) productivity of land; and diversify and increase farm profitability with diverse crops (row crops, forage and specialty crops) across three biophysically diverse regions in the U.S.: rainfed Illinois, dryland Colorado and irrigated Arizona,” USDA explains.

Another research project of note is a multistate Energy Department program on the benefits of solar panels with pollinator habitats, including Nebraska.

Follow The Land, Too

Another existing resource is the USDA’s Climate Hubs program. The Hubs are regional information-sharing offices established in 2014 during the administration of former President Obama, aimed at helping farmers and foresters manage their climate adaptation strategies. The Hubs have already begun eyeballing agricultural land as a key solar development resource.

For all the excitement over positioning solar arrays on rooftops, brownfields, public lands, and even roadways, agriculture beats them all on sheer volume.

The Northeast Climate Hub has noted that about 43% of land in the contiguous US is used for agriculture, compared to only 5% taken up by urban areas and roads. Brownfields and other habitat-compromised lands are identified as a priority for solar development in Energy Department’s 2021 Solar Futures Study, but they only account for another 8% of land. The study also targets farmland for solar development, and USDA is on board with that.

Would You Rather See McMansions There?

A movement against rural solar development has been percolating around the country, aided partly by misinformation on climate change. Part of the argument rests on the idea that solar energy is an inappropriate use of farmland. However, if a farmer is willing and able to sell or develop their property, the alternatives can involve the loss of farmland altogether.

In April, the Energy Department posted an article (originally published by PV Tech) from its Solar Energy Technologies Office that hints as much.

The author, program manager Michele Boyd, notes that the Biden administration’s 2035 goal for solar power generation would only take up about 0.3% of land in the lower 48 states. However, the solar panels would have to squeeze around “other types of infrastructure development that are also leading to the conversion of farmland.”

That’s not a veiled threat, that’s reality. It’s easy to spot new high end housing developments on former farmland when driving around the US. More recently, sprawling e-commerce warehouses have been taking up space. These buildings require significant subsurface disruption along with roads and other infrastructure. That acreage is lost to farming for the foreseeable future if not forever.

Boyd’s article also makes it clear that agrivoltaics research will forge onward, with or without the Agriculture Act.

“Based on data collected so far by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, there are over 2.8 GW of agrivoltaic sites in the U.S., the majority of which involve sheep grazing and/or pollinator habitat,” Boyd writes. Growing food crops under solar panels is still a rarity, but a number of crop-based agrivoltaic research projects are up and running around the country, and Boyd counts at least five commercial projects.

In addition, Boyd takes note of other resources that support agrivoltaics, including the Energy Department’s AgriSolar Clearinghouse as well as state legislation and state-funded research projects supporting agrivoltaics.

“We are collaborating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on foundational research to help understand the economic value and tradeoffs and ecological impacts of agrivoltaics projects,” she also observes. “DOE is also funding the development of new technologies that could facilitate agrivoltaics and help lower the cost premium.”

More Support For Solar Panels On Farms

If the Agrivoltaics Act fails to pass, there’s always the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. As described by the Michigan Farm Bureau, the IRA already includes grants, loans, and tax credits for farmers seeking to place off-grid solar panels on their property.

The grants and loans are administered under the USDA’s existing Rural Energy for America program (REAP), which funds renewable energy and energy efficiency projects for farms and rural small businesses.

Two Democratic US Senators, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, are also eyeballing REAP as a vehicle for promoting the co-location of pollinator habitats with solar arrays. In May, the two sensators introduced the Pollinator Power Act, which directs USDA to prioritize solar projects that include pollinator habitats.

Topping it all off is the mainstreaming of regenerative agriculture, along with other sustainable agriculture practices that share soil and water conservation elements with agrivoltaics. USDA already includes renewable energy under its sustainable agriculture programs, and the dollars have been flowing in.

Follow me: tinamcasey on Bluesky, Threads, Post, LinkedIn, and Spoutible

Image: Agrivoltaics can deliver advantages for both solar panels and agricultural activities (photo credit: Werner Slocum / National Renewable Energy Laboratory).

Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.

EV Obsession Daily!

I don't like paywalls. You don't like paywalls. Who likes paywalls? Here at CleanTechnica, we implemented a limited paywall for a while, but it always felt wrong — and it was always tough to decide what we should put behind there. In theory, your most exclusive and best content goes behind a paywall. But then fewer people read it!! So, we've decided to completely nix paywalls here at CleanTechnica. But...
Like other media companies, we need reader support! If you support us, please chip in a bit monthly to help our team write, edit, and publish 15 cleantech stories a day!
Thank you!

Tesla Sales in 2023, 2024, and 2030

CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.
Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


You May Also Like

Clean Transport

Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News! The Biden administration recently announced the opening of...


Agrivoltaics supporters and emerging farmers join forces with member-owned rural electric cooperatives to push for dual use farmland.


Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News! On Cetta Barnhart’s demonstration farm in Monticello, Florida,...


Researchers at Purdue University have patented an agrivoltaic array with solar panels that tilt for farm equipment to pass through.

Copyright © 2023 CleanTechnica. The content produced by this site is for entertainment purposes only. Opinions and comments published on this site may not be sanctioned by and do not necessarily represent the views of CleanTechnica, its owners, sponsors, affiliates, or subsidiaries.