Could Solar Gardens Boost Traditional Farming with Renewable Energy?

This solar farm in Colorado thinks so.
Irmak Bayrakdar
Jack's Solar Farm. Colorado Agrivoltaic Center

The farming industry is using way too much energy both for its own and the Earth's sake. To put it in numbers, agriculture uses approximately 21 percent of food production energy, which equals 2.2 quadrillions of kilojoules of energy each year. What's more, about 60 percent of the energy used in agriculture goes toward gasoline, diesel, electricity, and natural gas. 

That's where agrivoltaics come in. A system where solar panels are installed at great heights so that plants could grow underneath them, avoiding the harmful effects of too much sunlight all while using the same land. The shade these panels provide reduces the water used in the farming processes and the extra moisture the plants give off helps cool the panels in return, producing up to 10 percent more solar power

The U.S. Department of Energy's InSPIRE project aims to demonstrate opportunities for cost reductions and environmental compatibility of solar energy technologies. To achieve that, DOE usually recruits researchers from various laboratories around the country in addition to local governments and industry partners. Such as Kurt and Byron Kominek, a father-son duo from Colorado who are the founders of Jack’s Solar Garden in Longmont, Colorado, the largest commercially active agrivoltaics system in the United States.

Exploring the benefits of an agrivoltaics system

The site is home to multiple research projects including crop production, pollinator habitat, ecosystem services, and pasture grass for grazing. The 1.2-MW solar garden also generates enough energy that could power more than 300 homes thanks to its 3,276 solar panels at heights of 6 ft and 8 ft (1.8 m and 2.4 m).

Through Jack's Solar Farm, the Kominek family turned their 24-acre family farm purchased by their grandfather Jack Stingerie in 1972 into a model garden that can produce energy and food in harmony through solar energy.

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Byron Kominek told “We couldn't have built this agrivoltaics system without the support of our community, from the Boulder County government that enabled us to build the solar array with a forward-looking land-use code and clean-energy-centric regulations to the companies and residents who purchase power from us,” to National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and added that “We thoroughly appreciate all those who have contributed to our success and who speak kindly of our efforts.”

According to the InSPIRE project, these solar gardens can provide positive benefits for soil quality, carbon storage, stormwater management, microclimate conditions, and solar efficiencies.

Jordan Macknick, principal investigator for InSPIRE said “Jack’s Solar Garden provides us the most comprehensive and largest agrivoltaics research site in the nation while also providing other food access and educational benefits to the surrounding community... It serves as a model that can be replicated for greater energy security and food security in Colorado and the nation.”