I want to talk to you about goats, pineapples, and honeybees. This is relevant, I swear.
It’s not unusual for renewable energy developers to co-locate their assets alongside, or sometimes on top of existing agriculture developments. Wind developers have long recognized the benefits of sharing agricultural land, where crops and livestock can grow directly under turbines with minimal impact. But evolving from common site selection practices are innovations that are creating a real buzz on farms across the world.
There’s a rich history of – and a bright future for – combining agriculture and renewable energy assets. A new generation of farmers and renewable energy developers are joining forces to reduce CO2 emissions and re-think our food supply.
A Win-Win History
The parallels are plentiful, as solar operators and farmers alike, harness the power of the sun to grow their ‘crops’ and maximize yields. Using their trusted Almanac’s and PVSyst models, they pray to their respective solar gods for good fortune and greater irradiance.
But beyond these fun similarities is a history of renewable energy’s impact on agricultural production. For instance, industrialization was greatly aided by the work of windmills and water wheels to mill grains and pump water.
And in even more recent history, agriculture applications presented some of the first use cases for photovoltaics, in small off-grid systems powering small sensors, irrigation switches, security cameras and more.
We’ve utilized energy generation alongside agriculture for centuries, but a new appetite for integrated system-based thinking is bringing forward technical innovations and policy to make agro-energy a viable and profitable opportunity.
What Does the Typical Solar Site Look Like?
Unfortunately, many utility-scale solar sites are filled with gravel, bare dirt or simple turf grass. This is where low cost investments in on-site vegetation can make positive impacts to the natural environment and neighbouring crops, all while lowering O&M costs.
Co-locating honeybees, or providing pollinator-friendly environments with local vegetation, is an impactful environmental improvement for a solar asset, with a low barrier to entry. Extra leasing income from beekeepers, or improved yield from nearby crops, can offset any underperforming generation.
The US Dept of Energy studied 2800 utility scale solar sites near pollination-dependent crops, such as soybeans, almonds, and cranberries. The study found that if sites had included simple pollinator habitats and were able to increase yield by 1%, crop values could rise $1.75 million, $4 million and $233,000 for soybeans, almonds, and cranberries, respectively.
Policymakers have recognized the synergies as well. States like Illinois and Minnesota have created pollinator-friendly solar energy bills. With great success, Minnesota’s state standard resulted in 50% of all projects from 2016-2017 featuring native plants to improve pollinator habitats, and reduce vegetation management.
A common practice in site preparations involves grading the land and removing all vegetation.
But a 2012 study by NREL found that implementing a vegetation co-location plan during initial site preparation helped lower overall installed cost by 3-8% per watt. This also reduced weed management costs, and resulted in savings from brush clearing, grading and soil stripping.
|Benefits to Land Owners||Benefits to Solar Developers|
|Self-generation of electricity and reduced energy bills||Reductions in site preparation and installation costs|
|Control of wind and soil erosion||Reductions in operation and maintenance costs|
|Compatible with grazing activities, provides shade and cover for livestock||Reduced need for dust suppression|
|Market opportunity for shade tolerant crops||Decreased permitting time|
|Improved habitat for pollinator species||Increased solar production from cooler air zone created under modules|
|Reduction in environmental mitigation investments|
It’s no surprise that big players like Duke Energy, NextEra Energy and Canadian Solar have experimented with the use of livestock as natural lawnmowers on their sites. Duke energy stated that, besides lease payments, vegetation management was the primary operating expense for their assets. Naturally, this created new business opportunities for shepherds, like this Ontario provider, Goat Grazers.
How’s this for an SLA? Goats are dropped off in the spring, and re-located from zone to zone based on needs, or allowed to freely roam on the site. These hungry creatures provide all the lawncare management your projects need. Can they fill out a ticketing form in PowerHub? That’s a whole other blog article.
From a demand perspective, farmers are typically good candidates for solar or wind energy. Most people don’t understand the load requirements on modern farms. Harvesters, grain dryers, HVAC systems, pumps, and lighting all take considerable electricity that could be provided on-site. Advances in electric drivetrains in tractors and other farm vehicles will also increase electricity demand for farmers of the future.
What’s the Trade-off?
So, what’s the ROI on co-located assets? We’re still learning, but the Fraunhofer Institute For Solar Energy Systems conducted an experiment to build a dual use system they called “Agrophotovoltaics”or APV for short. Crops tested were wheat, potatoes, celeriac, and clover grass. Expectedly, crop yields decreased by 5.3% for clover grass and 19% for the other crops. However, these losses are recouped by the 194kW PV system, with 40% electricity used to charge electric farm and harvesting equipment, while the remaining 60% was sold to the local utility for profits. Larger scale projects must push these positive results and explore other design synergies.
So where do we go from here? How about Up?
Vertical farming is part of the ‘Food Factories’ movement, that some experts believe will revolutionize food production in the 21st century. With startups like Plenty receiving a $200 million investment, and high-profile leaders like Kimbal Musk, and his shipping container kale, market uptake is increasing.
The technology and design of indoor farming facilities are fascinating, but here two interesting take-aways.
With average 18-hour growth cycles, requiring heavy lighting and HVAC loads, industry experts expect Food Factories will create demand 2nd only to data centers. Utilities and developers should be excited by estimated peak load requirements ranging from 10-18 MW.
Precision climate controls allow indoor farms to toggle and optimize their demand profiles. Most farms experience at 75% load reduction when shifting from day to night crops cycles. With this built-in, expected downtime, indoor agriculture could play a vital role in balancing the grid.
Logan Ashcraft at Plenty described the potential load profile of indoor farming as the ‘liposuction’ for the belly of the ‘duck curve’. With daily growth cycles scheduled to peak throughout the day, indoor farms can utilize excess daytime renewable electricity and shut off when peak demand hits in the late afternoon. Compare this to data centres which require 24/7 upkeep plus backup systems.
How far are we from this reality? Well that depends on electricity costs, the primary barrier for indoor farming. In the US, it’s estimated that 7-9 cents per kWh is the breakeven point. With an 11 cents per kWh national average for similar industrial off takers, it’s clear that clean, low-cost renewable energy will be required to make this revolution take off.
Whether it’s simply adding wildflowers to your site to improve pollinator habitats, or deploying a fully integrated agro-energy project, we know that each project is unique. We hope to further innovate in this direction, returning great synergies between these two asset classes.
If you’re looking for growth, consider planting the seeds for your organization’s future with an asset management platform like PowerHub.
With PowerHub, our clients can manage their assets in one central location, tracking information and engagements with their project stakeholders. Whether it’s compliance obligations with regulators, interactions with multi-parcel landowners, or ensuring your site inspector doesn’t conflict with the shepherd and their goats, PowerHub can manage it all.