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Earth Notes: Solar Gardens

An aerial view of solar panels surrounded by green farmland
Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Center
Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Center

The space beneath solar panels is often thought to be bare, wasted ground. But what if it could be used to grow crops and graze livestock? That’s the idea behind agrivoltaics.

Jack’s Solar Garden in Boulder County, Colorado is the largest agrivoltaic research site in the United States that sells its energy commercially. It is a family farm with a four-acre solar array that produces enough energy for 300 homes. Hay and vegetables are grown beneath the elevated solar panels.

Scientists use the farm to study soil moisture, temperature, different kinds of crops, and different orientations of the solar panels, to find out the best way to combine food and energy production. There are also school tours and training opportunities for the next generation of farmers.

The idea of agrivoltaics has been around since the 1980s. Advocates say there’s a need for policies that incentivize solar developers, farmers, and communities to work together, and come up with efficient designs for multipurpose solar gardens. Farmers have to give up some growing space to make room for solar arrays, but the combination has many advantages.

The solar panels shelter plants from wind and hail. Certain crops benefit from the shade, especially in the sunny West. Researchers are also looking into the possibilities of planting native, perennial grasses beneath panels to sequester carbon and create habitat for wildlife and pollinators. Some solar farms include beehives or allow sheep to graze under the arrays.

And for the farmers, there’s the added benefit of extra income from selling a “solar crop.”

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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