Guzman Energy isn’t exactly a household word, but it should be. The Denver-based company sailed through it CleanTechnica radar three years ago with an innovative coal-for-solar financing plan aimed at rural electric cooperatives. In its latest twist, the company is showing how agrovoltaics can change the hearts and minds of local policymakers, persuading them to approve new solar projects that would otherwise get the thumbs down.
Solar To Coal: Hold My Beer
Rural electric cooperatives were established by federal law during the Depression. They were tasked with bringing electricity to many rural communities that had been abandoned by for-profit utility companies. Electric cooperatives are ratepayer-owned entities with a local economic development and social benefit mission.
Guzman Energy entered the scene back in 2016 with a financing platform that allows power cooperatives to wriggle out of long-term coal power contracts without burdensome financial penalties and buy more solar power.
Guzman’s first clients included Kit Carson Electric Cooperative. KCEC has been front and center in the clean energy transition and recently achieved 100% daily solar coverage for its ratepayers in New Mexico.
Agrivoltaics to the rescue
CleanTechnica has spilled a lot of ink on the topic of agrovoltaics over the past few years, and the good news just keeps getting better.
The main item of the note is the conservation of land for agricultural use. Instead of peppering farmland with solar panels placed close to the ground, agrovoltaics deploys elevated solar panels that allow for some farming within the field. A farmer can get some much needed income from the field without taking the arable land out of circulation.
Agrivoltaics also overlaps with the regenerative agriculture trend, which focuses on soil and water conservation. Shade from the solar panels creates a cool microclimate that reduces evaporation and helps prevent soil loss.
The relationship is symbiotic. Solar panels work more efficiently at lower temperatures, and a thick cushion of vegetation under the panels helps keep the temperature down.
Turning solar haters into solar cheerleaders
One notable development occurred last spring, when Guzman won approval to build an 80-megawatt solar installation planned for 472 acres. This is a ranch in Delta County in western Colorado.
The plan was initially booed by some community members and rejected by county commissioners on the grounds that it would take farmland out of business.
The majority on the board of commissioners finally came together when Guzman presented a plan to graze about 1,000 sheep in the field.
Reporter Judith Kohler z Denver Post notes that land restoration is also part of the plan. “Guzman Energy, which is partnering with Citra Power to build the solar farm, plans to spend about $1.5 million on landscaping and irrigation,” she wrote. “Preliminary plans call for the planting of 590 trees and 1,440 bushes.”
The US Department of Energy presents solar panels plus agriculture
The US Department of Energy has not stood idly by as the agrovoltaic field takes off. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently launched a multi-year research partnership with many partners and CleanTechnica took note of the events in July 2020:
“So what does the Department of Energy have to do with agrovoltaics? A lot! GIANT is participating in a major nationwide solar and pollinator project in 20 states under the auspices of [the] National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
“Entitled InSPIRE for Innovative Site Preparation and Impact Reductions on the Environment, the project brings together NREL and Argonne National Laboratory with other stakeholders from academia and local government, as well as environmental and clean energy organizations, with funding from the DOE Solar Technologies Office .”
NREL and its partners have been quite busy over the past two years. Last week, it issued an update describing how a collaborative research project developed the “5 Cs,” a short list of best practices.
1. The climate, soil and environment must be accessible to both solar panels and crops or ground cover.
2. Configuration, solar technology and design must take into account the use of the farm, including tractors and other equipment, over the life of the field. This period usually lasts about 25 years.
3. Crop selection and cultivation methods, seed and vegetative designs and management approaches should promote thriving crops that can bring profit in local markets.
4. Compatibility and flexibility are needed to balance the needs of solar owners and operators with the priorities of farmers or landowners.
5. Cooperation and partnership are a must. “Communication and understanding between groups is critical to the success of any project,” explains NREL.
Reducing the cost of solar arrays
NREL is also running a research project called PV-SMarRT (Photovoltaic Stormwater Management Research and Testing) that could help make solar installations even more attractive to farmers.
PV-SMaRT assesses how solar arrays affect the way water drains off a site.
Currently, many local codes treat solar installations much like parking lots in terms of water runoff, requiring solar projects to install large drainage basins and other infrastructure to capture stormwater runoff,” explains NREL. “However, the soil and vegetation beneath these panels can absorb much more water than a paved surface and can play an important role in reducing erosion.”
The project acquired five sites in different locations to collect water runoff data. If all goes according to plan, the data will make a case for reducing the amount of money needed to regulate man-made runoff.
“This research could help local and state governments establish new regulations that require smaller drainage basins for future solar installations, thereby reducing the cost of solar energy,” explains NREL.
Onward and upward for agrivoltaics
As for exactly what kind of farming can take place within a solar array, that’s a good question. The initial emphasis was on livestock grazing and pollinator habitat.
The field has branched out since the early days. One interesting variation is taking place in Massachusetts, where cranberry growers grow the sprouts in swamps dotted with solar panels.
NREL also features a site in Colorado called Jack’s Solar Garden, which is experimenting with vegetable crops while reaping the community benefits of solar panels and agriculture. Educational activities, a workforce development program, helping low-income households and supporting local artists are all in the mix.
If you’re wondering where the USDA is involved in this, check them out. Earlier this year, they highlighted the fact that solar arrays aren’t limited to Colorado and other parts of the sunny Southwest.
They point out that the Northeast is also becoming a hotbed of agrovoltaic activity, including cranberry projects in Massachusetts, blueberry farms in Maine and pastures in Vermont.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Image: Agrivoltaics combines solar panels and agriculture (courtesy of NREL).
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