This four-acre agrivoltaic system was installed by Bryon Kominek in Boulder County, Colorado. (Aaron Bugaj)
The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Pam Martin covered agriculture issues as editor of the St. John News and as a reporter/photographer for the Great Bend Tribune. She continues to stay informed on agriculture and environmental issues and is the Women for Kansas Barton County Chapter chairwoman.
Imagine fields of solar arrays with crops growing under them, tilting up and down, depending on plant, solar and producer needs.
Imagine new agricultural industries, solar grazing and solar beekeeping, using grasses and flowering plants under and beside solar farms.
Imagine Kansas adding solar energy to its diverse agriculture and energy portfolio, not only providing economical energy and new agricultural opportunities to our state, but also the country.
It’s time to stop thinking agriculture and solar farms are mutually exclusive and concentrate on how they work together. Agriculture and solar fields are not competing industries. Kansas has more sunny days than the “Sunshine State” of Florida, ranking eighth for sunniest states, according to data analysis website Stacker. Combining agriculture, the state’s largest economic and industrial driver, with solar, results in economic juggernaut.
Kansas is strategically placed to lead in the relatively new field of agrivoltaics. Recent research shows that in areas with high solar radiation and temperature, certain crops growing under solar arrays have an advantage. The western half of Kansas meets this definition, and climate change computer models show Kansas becoming hotter, drier and sunnier.
Agrivoltaics expanded in the 2000s. In 2019, Greg Barron-Gafford, professor in the University of Arizona School of Geography, Development and Environment, published the results of 10 years of research on growing vegetables and herbs under solar arrays. He and his team found pepper production was three times greater, and tomato, two times greater, under solar panels than direct sun.
The same research found irrigation is more efficient under solar arrays than uncovered crop ground. Crop growth was supported for days rather than hours after irrigation and soil moisture remained higher in the agrivoltaics system. That’s good news for those living with limited water resources.
Additional moisture, transpired into the air by the plants, cools the solar panels, increasing their efficiency. As panels warm, their efficiency drops. Cooler temperatures for workers harvesting and working on the crops are yet another benefit.
Agriculture industries of solar grazing and solar beekeeping take advantage of grasses and flowering plants growing under and along the edges of solar fields. Sheep, the most common solar grazing animals, benefit from solar panel shading. By grazing plants under and around the panels, sheep prevent plant overgrowth that could shade the panels. In addition to energy output, the areas provide agricultural income. In like fashion, commercial beekeepers are partnering with solar producers, taking advantage of native plants around and under solar arrays for nectar sources, also benefiting declining native pollinators.
As these new agriculture industries grow, entrepreneurs forge ahead. Bryon Kominek installed the largest commercially active agrivoltaic system on his land in Boulder County, Colorado, and Heartland Farms in Rush County, Kansas, plans to apply for a USDA grant to install a small agrivoltaic system.
The next stage is research and implementation. Additional research on agrivoltaics received a boost, with a recent $10 million USDA grant awarded to six partners. The four-year study extends research on crops and locations best suited to agrivoltaic systems, as well as solar panel design and placement to maintain or increase crop yields.
Kansas has the investments available.
We have funding from the bipartisan infrastructure bill for climate change initiatives and a $2.9 billion surplus in state coffers, enough to divert funding to research and development of agriculture and solar energy projects.
– Pam Martin
We have funding from the bipartisan infrastructure bill for climate change initiatives and a $2.9 billion surplus in state coffers, enough to divert funding to research and development of agriculture and solar energy projects. We have a premier agricultural research facility in Kansas State University. Establishment of a solar technician training program at one of our community and technical colleges would alleviate a technician shortage. Offering state solar installation incentives would encourage development.
Increased investment by large companies looking for carbon offsets is needed, with the Department of Commerce working on recruitment. Target, Google, and Jack Daniels financed much of the Colby wind farm for carbon offsets, according to Mike Morley, Midwest Energy communications director.
You can help by contacting your state representative and senator, encouraging them to support solar installation incentives, research funding and contacting the State Board of Regents, encouraging solar technician training programs. As of the writing of this piece, Kansas Senate Bills 481, 324 and 279, restricting wind and solar projects are in the Senate Utility Committee. When home agrivoltaic systems are available (there are several companies working on them), purchase and use them to lower your own carbon footprint.
Kansas has the resources and potential to take the lead in solar energy and sustainable agriculture production. The time for imagining is over. The time for action is here.
Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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