Agrivoltaic arrays can help preserve pollinators and other insect populations, benefiting biodiversity and nearby crops as well.

Agrivoltaic Solar Arrays Will Win The Rural Solar War, With Insects

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The war against solar power is erupting in rural counties across the US, but the solar industry has a new weapon in hand. A mounting pile of evidence has emerged to support agrivoltaic solar arrays as an effective way to benefit crops and preserve insect populations, too. New York State, for one, has seen enough to make the case for a new $5 million program to kickstart the agrivoltaic revolution all over the US.

Agrivoltaic Solar Arrays To Save The Insects

In the early days of rural solar development, solar panels were relatively expensive and little attention was paid to the ground underneath the panels. Now the panels are less expensive and researchers are finding evidence that solar arrays can be designed to preserve the ground below for farming, leading to the emergence of a new industry called agrivoltaics.

The partial shade from strategically spaced solar panels can benefit crop yields and conserve soil moisture. Evidence is also accumulating in support of the beneficial impacts on pollinator habitats and native flora, a particularly important element considering that the global insect population is in decline.

Back in 2018, researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory wondered if agrivoltaics could restore bees and other valuable pollinators to agricultural lands. They spent five years examining two solar sites in Minnesota, which has adopted a leading role in the solar-plus-farming trend.

The researchers issued a verdict earlier this year, coming down firmly on the side of utility-scale solar development on farmland.

“We found increases over time for all habitat and biodiversity metrics: floral rank, flowering plant species richness, insect group diversity, native bee abundance, and total insect abundance, with the most noticeable temporal increases in native bee abundance,” the researchers reported earlier this week in the open access journal Environmental Research Letters.

Solar Panels For Farmland Conservation

In one particularly important finding, the researchers found a comparable pollination benefit between the agrivoltaic arrays and farmland conserved through the Conservation Reserve Program of the US Department of Agriculture. Created in 1985, the CRP pays farmers to take their fields out of production. The aim is to restore natural habitats, improve water quality, and prevent soil erosion. The new research suggests that similar benefits can be realized from an agrivoltaic array.

“We also found positive effects of proximity to solar-pollinator habitat on bee visitation to nearby soybean (Glycine max) fields. Bee visitation to soybean flowers adjacent to solar-pollinator habitat were comparable to bee visitation to soybeans adjacent to grassland areas enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program,” the researchers explain, though they advise that additional research is needed.

The CRP is described as “one of the largest private-lands conservation programs in the United States.” If that program could be paired with agrivoltaic development, farmers could gain additional revenue from power generation on their land while also providing conservation services.

CRP contracts currently last 10-15 years. With agrivoltaics layered onto the program, longer contracts or sequential contracts would be needed to account for the 20-25 year lifespan of a typical solar array. If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

New York State Wants More Agrivoltaic Arrays

In the initial phases of agrivoltaic activity, developers focused primarily on pollinator habitats, grazing lands for livestock, and native habitat restoration. More recently, solar panels been applied to raising specialty crops. One particularly interesting example is a project that involves introducing saffron to US farmers as a new high-value crop.

That’s where the New York’s new $5 million agrivoltaic program comes in. Administered through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the program casts a wide net. NYSERDA explains that the funds will support “researchers, solar developers, farmers, non-profit organizations, and local governments interested in demonstrating the use of the same land for renewable energy generation from solar panels and active farming, also known as agrivoltaics.”

Applicants are expected to submit estimates of marketable commodities and agricultural production along with solar power generation, focusing on grazing lands or specialty crops. The successful awardees will also be required to share data and lessons learned, and host educational events.

If you’re wondering why not large-scale field crops like wheat or corn, that’s a good question. Deploying agrivoltaics on acres of field crops is possible, but only if the solar array accommodates traffic from the heavy machinery used in modern industrial farming.

One emerging solution is new bifacial solar technology, which could be arranged around the perimeter of a field instead of taking up space inside. Another solution involves solar panels that can tilt up and out of the way. Both of these are relatively new developments and it remains to be seen if NYSERDA ends up tapping one, or both, for trial.

New York State Wants More Rural Solar For You, Too

If you caught that thing about demonstrating, that’s important. NYSERDA expects the program to yield actionable data on various kinds of agrivoltaic applications, leading to widespread adoption.

“Data collected from selected projects will be shared with farmers, solar developers and other stakeholders so that successful projects could be replicated elsewhere in New York State,” NYSERDA emphasizes.

It’s a safe bet that agriculture and energy planners in other states will be keeping a close eye on the proceedings. While news about New York State is dominated by New York City, the state as a whole is primarily rural. About 61% is covered by privately owned commercial forests and public parklands, and another 20% is claimed by farmers.

All together, 86.6% of New York is classified as rural, which explains why rural solar development is going to play a leading role in the state’s renewable energy transition. The same goes for other states as well.

What Is An Appropriate Use Of Farmland?

Agrivoltaics or not, rural solar opponents have been working to block new utility scale solar projects, based partly on the argument that power generation is an industrial activity and is therefore an inappropriate use of farmland.

NYSERDA President and CEO Doreen M. Harris has an answer for that.

“The integration of agriculture operations and clean energy siting is important to understand the costs, benefits and market potential of locating two essential industries in the same space,” she explained in a press statement.

CleanTechnica agrees. As practiced in the US, modern agriculture is an industrial activity, not a bucolic walk in the park.

“The reliance on diesel-powered equipment, the rise of energy sucking factory-type livestock operations, the copious use of plastic in modern farming, and in particular, the growth of the energy crop industry further undercut the argument that farmland should be broadly immune to solar development,” we noted last year.

Further undercutting that position is new research from the Center for Rural Affairs. Covering Iowa and Minnesota, the CRF analysis reveals that existing and planned utility-scale solar arrays on farms has a minimal impact on the overall amount of land available for farming in those two states.

Just saying.

Photo (cropped): Agrivoltaic arrays can help preserve pollinators and other insect populations, benefiting biodiversity and nearby crops as well (courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory).

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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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