Massachusetts sees more interest in combining solar power and agriculture
A Massachusetts incentive program for projects that combine solar power and agricultural production is showing signs of finally gaining momentum after a slow rollout that has at times frustrated solar developers and farmers.
In 2018, Massachusetts became the first state offer financial incentives for “dual-use” or “agrivoltaic” solar projects built above active agricultural land. Since the launch, however, only three projects have been launched. Eight more have qualified for the incentive but have yet to be built.
“It’s really frustrating that we’re not further ahead,” said Jake Marley, director of Hyperion Systems, a solar developer specializing in dual-use projects. “But the conversation is intensifying. It is on this precipice to gain more and more speed.
Proponents of the concept say it has the potential to alleviate two problems simultaneously: the need to build more renewable energy facilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the need to preserve agricultural land, by especially small local farms.
Massachusetts aims to install 3,200 megawatts of solar capacity through a state incentive program at a time when farmland faces increasing development pressure.
“We want to see as much as possible developed in a way that supports farms and keeps farms running,” said Ethan Winter, Northeast Solar Energy Specialist at the American Farmland Trust.
In the past, building solar panels on farmland usually meant taking fields out of production and replacing crops with solar panels. Dual-use developments, however, require solar panels built a significant height above the ground — Massachusetts policies require a minimum elevation of 10 feet — and further apart than in conventional panels. The extra space under and around the panel is intended to let in enough sunlight to grow crops to harvest or for animals to graze.
Solar developers and other experts familiar with the Massachusetts program attributed the low adoption rate to a combination of factors. They include a lack of familiarity with the concept among farmers, as well as the relatively strict definition of state for which projects are eligible, which some say is too narrow and conservative.
“They’re very careful how they label projects,” Winter said.
Difficult to predict results
The rules of the program also had to be changed several times to answer questions and iron out issues that arose as the first projects came in. While this process is necessary, according to the developers, it has also made it more difficult to reliably plan and budget for projects.
The state’s solar incentive program has allocated 80 megawatts of its capacity to agrivoltaic developments, providing a higher incentive rate for such projects. The rules require that solar panels shade no more than 50% of the growing area and have strict rules regarding elevation. These guidelines apply regardless of the soil type of a field, what plants will be grown, or whether the land will be used for cropping or grazing.
A better approach might be to focus less on prescribing board specs and more on results, Winter said. Some places in Europe, for example, have a production threshold that requires dual-use farmland to reach a certain percentage of its previous productivity.
The novelty of dual-use agreements can make it difficult for farmers and developers to get a reliable idea of how a new system works. It can be difficult to predict outcomes in a system as complex as agriculture, said Dwayne Breger, director of Clean Energy Extension at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Variations in crops, soil type and farming techniques can all change the outcome. And changes in weather conditions from year to year mean that one year’s results offer only limited information.
“There’s a problem with uncertainty,” Breger said. “It’s difficult to provide definitive information because there are so many parameters.”
There’s also a lack of widespread understanding of dual-use strategies among farmers, Marley said. Farmers operate on tight margins, so embarking on a new approach can be daunting without more familiarity with dual-use and its results. And so far, there are only a few examples to consider in Massachusetts.
“Once there are more results, I think there will be more acceptance,” Marley said.
The first projects help to arouse the interest
Despite these hurdles, it is widely believed that progress is accelerating in the dual-use space.
Breger helps the state review predetermination requests for the dual-use inducement, a step that helps developers spot potential issues and resolve them before a formal request is submitted. In recent years, he has seen an increase in the number of such requests for predetermination. Over the past few years, he said, there have been about 30 projects that have completed this preliminary review and there are another dozen in the works.
The frequency of rule changes has also leveled off, leaving developers with a much better ability to plan projects, said Nick d’Arbeloff, vice president of business affairs at SunBug Solar.
“They polished the policy professionally,” he said. “We can now build a system with good confidence that everyone understands how it works.”
The dual-use projects that are operational in the state show promise. In western Massachusetts, Nathaniel Tassinari worked with SunBug to build a 250 kilowatt array on his family farmland in the town of Monson. The project, a community solar development dubbed A Million Little Sunbeams, went live in 2020. The system uses a single-axis design and panels that track the sun throughout the day. The painting is elevated above the fields where the farm grows hay as fodder for dairy cows.
So far, the panels are exceeding modeled expectations by about 15% and there has been no noticeable impact on hay, Tassinari said.
“We can’t really see a discernible difference between below and not below,” he said.
The project is already serving as an inspiration for others interested in the concept. Tassinari estimates he receives around 100 “solar tourists” each year, many of whom are solar developers or farmers trying to better understand how the idea works in real life.
The concept is also gaining traction outside of Massachusetts. The largest dual-purpose development in the country, a 4.2 megawatt painting erected above blueberry fields, debuted in Maine last year. New Jersey has launched a dual-use pilot program, and conversations are heating up in states like Pennsylvania, New York and Illinois, Ward said.
In 2020, the US Department of Energy awarded $7 million in grants to four projects across the country investigating aspects of combining solar panels and active agriculture. Breger’s team at the University of Massachusetts received $1.8 million to conduct ongoing research at eight pilot sites, including the nation’s first solar installation on a cranberry bog.
Current climatic and economic conditions may also encourage more farmers to consider agrivoltaics. As hotter, drier summers become more common, the shade provided by the panels could actually benefit some crops, Breger said. At the same time, rising fossil fuel and electricity prices could make solar power even more attractive than it already is, D’Arbeloff noted.
And agrivoltaic advocates are determined to overcome the remaining hurdles, Ward said.
“We won’t let it fail,” he said. “We’re pushing the boundaries of accepting that.”
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