The DOE is providing $8M for US solar and farming research – here’s why that’s smart

The DOE is providing $8M for US solar and farming research – here's why that's smart

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has announced $8 million in research funding for six agrivoltaics projects – that is, pairing solar with farming.

Solar + farming = agrivoltaics

When solar power and agriculture – including crop production, livestock grazing, and/or pollinator habitat – coexist on a piece of land, it’s called agrivoltaics. An Oregon State University study published in 2019 found that “if less than 1% of agricultural land was converted to solar panels, it would be sufficient to fulfill global electric energy demand.” 

Yet less than 2% of US solar energy projects are currently co-located with crops or pollinator habitats.

For smaller farm animals such as sheep (cows are another matter because of their size), solar panels provide shade and shelter, and the animals keep the grass trimmed and eat for free. The shade that the solar panels create reduces heat and light underneath, thus helping to conserve water.

This DOE funding program is called FARMS: Foundational Agrivoltaic Research for Megawatt Scale, and it “examines how agrivoltaics can provide new economic opportunities to farmers, rural communities, and the solar industry.” The DOE announced the program in May, and it announced the six selected projects late last week.

The six projects are, as explained by the DOE (Editor’s note: Below is a direct quote):

  • Iowa State University (Ames, IA): This project will study horticulture and beekeeping at solar sites, produce decision support tools, and provide agrivoltaics training programs for farmers and other stakeholders. (Award Amount: $1.6 million)  
  • Rutgers University (Piscataway, NJ): This project team will conduct crop and grazing trials at two solar array testbeds, study community perceptions of agrivoltaics, and create a regional agrivoltaics network for agricultural extension staff in the Northeast, beginning with their partnership with Delaware State University, a historically black land-grant university. (Award Amount: $1.6 million)  
  • Solar and Storage Industries Institute (Washington, DC): This project team will partner with the agriculture and utility sectors to identify barriers to implementing agrivoltaics and produce case studies and guides for solar developers, farmers, and decision-makers. (Award Amount: $500,000) 
  • The Ohio State University (Columbus, OH): This project will conduct grazing and forage (hay) production trials using precision agriculture technologies and study the impacts on soil health at an operating utility-scale solar site. (Award Amount: $1.8 million) 
  • University of Alaska Fairbanks (Fairbanks, AK): This project will research agrivoltaics specifically adapted to the food and energy needs of high-latitude underserved communities. (Award Amount: $1.3 million) 
  • University of Arizona (Tucson, AZ): This research will pilot grazing and climate-smart agriculture under a traditional utility-scale solar site to maximize energy, food, and water benefits in the arid Southwest. (Award Amount: $1.2 million) 

Electrek’s Take

In February 2021, Electrek published a story about the top five trends in solar’s future, and agrivoltaics was on that list. So we’re happy to see this research funding announcement from the Biden administration. Combining solar with farming is an excellent idea that needs to be deployed quickly. It’s efficient, it conserves water, it provides clean energy, and it’s both a moneymaker and a money saver for farmers and growers. It provides habitats for pollinators. It provides land for solar panels. Everyone wins.

Photo: “File:Dornbirn-Montfortstrasse 19-Gardening-Photovoltaik-01ASD.jpg” by Asurnipal is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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