Solar Energy and Your Farm

Whereas photosynthetic organisms convert light to chemical energy, solar panels begin the process of converting light to electrical energy. No one is isolated from the effects and importance of photosynthesis, and it seems that a growing number of people are increasingly reliant on and affected by solar energy in one way or another, too. Farmers and other landowners in Ohio and throughout the U.S. are currently intersecting directly with solar energy in at least four ways. They are using solar energy from the grid, weighing options for leasing land to solar energy projects adding to the grid, exploring options for integrating farming and solar energy production (the process of “agrivoltaics”), and/or they are experimenting with using electricity they generate using solar capture completed as a ‘private’ activity.

What to look for as you considering leasing land for solar energy development is the subject of three free webinars organized by Penn State University Extension. The webinar held on February 23, 2022 featured Scott R. Kurkoski of Levene Gouldin and Thompson, LLP (https://www.lgtlegal.com/) as the technical presenter. His comments were very practical and informative, especially for landowners in the early stages of evaluating a potential relationship with a solar project. Watch the webinar at https://psu.mediaspace.kaltura.com/media/Leasing+Your+Land+for+Solar+Energy+DevelopmentA+Webinar+on+2-23-22/1_xt3id0rt and consider registering for the webinars to be held on March 16 (Evaluating the Contract Terms When Leasing Your Land for Solar Energy Development; www.bit.ly/solarMarch16) and March 23 (Solar Leasing Questions, Answers, and Wrap-up; www.bit.ly/solarMarch23). Or contact Tom Murphy of Penn State Extension for more information (tbm1@psu.edu) on the webinars.

In an article posted to VegNet on December 19, 2021 (https://u.osu.edu/vegnetnews/2021/12/19/a-simple-inexpensive-diy-system-for-controlling-the-height-of-high-tunnel-sidewall-rollbars-remotely/), I outlined a small but important project involving electricity generated by one solar panel attached to a high tunnel at OSU in Wooster. That panel and the battery it charges has powered an inflation fan, sensors collecting temperature data, four motors driving end wall vents and sidewall motors, and the panel controlling them all nonstop for more than six years. The battery has been replaced once. This is one small example of how on-site solar power generation can benefit a grower.

What happens to and/or can be done with land beneath a large array of solar panels setup to supply the grid (or local operation) is a major question for landowners and solar project officials alike. Officials with no interest in using the land for an additional purpose still tend to require it to be maintained to a basic extent so the project is not compromised. However, in other cases, landowners (farmers) and solar officials explore the “agrivoltaics” (AV) option. Two broad versions of agrivoltaics are taking root but progressing at slightly different rates. In one, land near the solar panels is grazed (e.g., by small ruminants) mainly to control vegetation but also to help generate revenue. In the second version, revenue-generating crops (vegetables? forages? fruit? flowers?) are grown on land beside or below the solar panels. Water released through plant leaves cools the panels by evaporation and reduces the heat-island effect common in solar panel-only facilities. Therefore, the panels operate more efficiently in converting sunlight to electricity. Other potential benefits of AV include more efficient water and land use, less heat stress on plants and panels, and more energy capture – meaningful financial and environmental gains. Clearly, the ‘trick’ is in designing the system to serve and optimize as many functions as possible.

Not surprisingly, agrivoltaics is regarded as a potentially significant partial solution to complex and widespread challenges. AV combines solar power generation and farming. Normally, these processes occur independently and separately. AV theory integrates them in exciting ways by requiring the processes to occur simultaneously on the same land. Early-stage test results in parts of the U.S., Europe, and Australia have created optimism. However, significant challenges exist in integrating photovoltaic power generation and agriculture on working farms. In May, I will be fortunate to begin collaborating with experts at Central Queensland University in Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia and industry partners in identifying the best next steps in utilizing agrivoltaics more effectively, including in Ohio and the region. This Fulbright-supported project will help ensure a rapid and effective transfer of understanding and capacity between OH/the U.S. and Queensland/Australia. Look for updates in these pages and other outlets or contact me anytime for more information on the project.

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