Byron Kominek wants his family farm just south of Longmont to become a research center for whether solar power generation, bee habitat and agricultural production can happily coexist under sun-capturing panels in Colorado.
The 24-acre property at 8102 N. 95th St., which Kominek grew up visiting with his family, could soon have about 3,000 solar panels covering part of it — but the shade they would cast on the soil won’t necessarily stop the land from growing food or hosting pollinators.
Instead, Kominek and researchers with Colorado State University, the University of Arizona and the National Renewable Energy Lab would continue to grow crops and keep beehives below the panels, measuring whether the shadows they provide are helpful to the vegetation and insects.
Growing crops alongside photovoltaic solar power equipment is a practice described as “agrivoltaic,” a combination of agriculture and photovoltaic, the name of the type of technology behind the panels. NREL and other research groups have been studying the model in more than 20 areas across the country.
But Jordan Macknick, lead energy, water and land analyst for NREL, predicts it could be especially useful in Colorado.
“The conditions in Colorado I think are pretty ideal for agrivoltaics, where you get increases in both crop yield and photovoltaic solar (power production),” Macknick said. “The hotter and drier you are, the more the panels can help.”
Positioning the panels so their shadows protect the plants below from sunlight during the hottest, brightest parts of the day helps leaves avoid pausing photosynthesis when overheated, which can lead to larger harvests, Macknick said. The key is to elevate solar panels higher off the ground than those in traditional solar fields.
The shade provided by solar panels — there will be 1.2 megawatts-worth on Kominek’s property, enough to simultaneously power about 600 Colorado homes, according to an Xcel Energy spokesman — also could lessen water demand, and therefore bolster soil conditions, research shows.
“Net benefits were largely achieved through an increased water use efficiency in the shaded areas of the field, which left water stored in the soil column available throughout the entire observation period,” stated the conclusion of a 2018 agrivoltaic study in Oregon funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Plus, the plants on Kominek’s land also might help the panels produce more power.
“That’s mainly because the physics of how solar panels work. The cooler the solar panels, the higher the efficiencies will be,” Macknick said, explaining that vegetation growing below a panel creates a cooler “microclimate” surrounding the device.
The possibility of a win-win for solar alongside agriculture could alleviate a growing amount of competition for land between the two industries, the 2018 study stated, with the quickly-growing renewable energy field desperate for spacious, flat, sunny plots — all qualities of farmland.
Areas hosting traditional solar fields are generally stripped of all vegetation, and replacing it after the power equipment is erected is usually discouraged, a 2017 NREL study on agrivoltaics notes.
“Despite these common practices, there are many opportunities to minimize the land use impacts of solar development and to incorporate vegetation into the design of solar installations,” the NREL study states.
Kominek keeps several hives of bees on the property, and an examination of their health and interactions with the agrivoltaic plot, along with those of several other bee colonies placed in the crop fields by researchers, also will be a part of the study.
The project — dubbed Jack’s Solar Garden to memorialize Kominek’s grandfather, who bought the property in 1972 after spending his career farming in Broomfield — is moving through Boulder County’s land use review process.
Kominek hopes to start construction later this year, and when it begins producing clean, renewable power, Xcel Energy customers can subscribe to support the project by buying a portion of its power and receiving a credit on their electricity bills.
Kominek also plans to donate a small percentage of the energy captured to low-income housing providers in the area.
He conceived the idea of bringing an agrivoltaic plot to Longmont shortly after moving to the property in 2016 following his journey on the Appalachian Trail and, before that, working as a diplomat in Zambia and Mozambique. He wanted to bring the solar element to the property while preserving its agricultural heritage.
“Having multi-purpose land use strategies is something we could use more of everywhere in the world,” Kominek said.
You can stay updated on the project’s progress at jackssolargarden.com.
Sam Lounsberry: 303-473-1322, firstname.lastname@example.org and twitter.com/samlounz.