While there's been lots of discussion about the increase in solar panels, there's been less attention paid to what lies below them – and that's land. A lot of it. Utility-scale solar installations could cover up to 11 million acres of the US by 2050 – projects that are likely to be accelerated due to the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act (which continues tax breaks for clean-energy projects).
This represents one of the biggest questions around solar panels: will an increase in land being used for this purpose hurt local agriculture and farmers? Not necessarily, according to a growing number of businesses that are seeing an opportunity in what lies beneath – but, to succeed, they'll have to do some convincing first.
Agrivoltaics is the practice of combining agriculture with the installation of solar panels. While researchers and communities have long been experimenting with the concept, the commercial opportunity has just started to take off as solar farms become more common: winemakers in France found vines planted below solar panels needed less water, while Algerian researchers found that potato crops have a higher yield in their shade.
But the opportunities extend beyond crops. That's what Arlo C Hark and Josephine Trople, livestock farmers based in Northfield, Minnesota, found when a neighbor asked if their goats could tackle an invasive buckthorn issue. ‘The goats are able to eat and strip the bark off these undesirable species, which allows for more native growth to be promoted,’ says Arlo. ‘We were really inspired by that and saw this opportunity – what about prairie ecosystems? There were all these solar sites popping up that have vegetation under them that [needs] management.’ The couple set up Cannon Valley Graziers, which provides solar grazing services – a sector of agrivoltaics that uses sheep to graze the hard-to-maintain land below solar panels, promoting soil fertility and biodiversity in the process. They have their own flock and work with other local sheep farmers to use their animals for bigger projects. ‘We've doubled the sites we work on from this year to last year,’ he says.
Make hay while the sun is shining
However, starting up an agrivoltaics business isn't as simple as getting a flock of sheep and letting them loose – Arlo and Josephine both grew up in agriculture, studied ecology and provide full land-management services (in other words, they make sure they mow if the sheep have missed a spot). But the couple are also launching additional revenue streams in the off-season, which could be a model for others to emulate. They just launched Bayl, a wool apparel brand, and will launch Tethera, a meat company, later this year. Beekeeping is another area where business owners have found success: Bare Honey and Clif Family Winery sell honey from pollinator-friendly solar farms.
That said, not everyone is thrilled about the prospect of an increasing number of solar farms – one such project in Indiana has been stalled by farmers who feel major projects are taking away from local communities' traditions and farming. But, when done right, agrivoltaics can help make big changes feel more local, says Arlo: ‘There are stories of solar developers going into a community and having projects shut down, but coming back a month later and saying: “We're going to use solar grazing. We've got a local shepherd we're going to work with and we're going to keep this land in agriculture,” and the project passes.’