Agrivoltaics finds new fans in US Senate

Agriculture and solar: a winning combination for farmers, the climate and now — thanks to two recently introduced bills — maybe the Senate, too.
By Alison F. Takemura

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Several white sheep graze and rest among large solar panels
(Antalexion/CC BY-SA 4.0)

U.S. senators on both sides of the aisle have recently proposed two bills to boost agrivoltaics, the double-duty climate solution that pairs solar panels (photovoltaics) with agriculture — or closely related land uses that benefit farmers and ecosystems.

In May, senators Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) introduced the Pollinator Power Act. Its passage would direct the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to prioritize solar projects funded by the Rural Energy for America Program that create habitat for pollinators underneath the panels. Pollinators such as bees, butterflies and beetles are responsible for pollinating three-quarters of flowering plants and 35 percent of food crops, but populations are in striking decline, in major part because of habitat loss.

On the heels of the pollinator bill, senators Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) and Mike Braun (R-Indiana) worked across the aisle to jointly propose legislation that could catalyze the growth of agrivoltaics in the U.S.: the Agrivoltaics Research and Demonstration Act. If made law, the act would invest $15 million per year from 2024 to 2028 — $75 million total — toward agrivoltaics research and demonstration projects.

As solar deployments proliferate across the U.S., solar skeptics regularly decry the loss of agricultural land for the sake of new solar farms. Agrivoltaics could be a critical means of addressing those concerns by enabling farmland to host solar and stay in production, to the benefit of farmers’ wallets.

The U.S. will need solar panels on 10.3 million acres, or about 0.5 percent of land in the contiguous U.S., in order to meet the goal of decarbonizing the economy by 2050, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Some of that space could be supplied by overlapping with agriculture, which occupies more than 40 percent of the land in the U.S.

Cartoon showing different arrangements of solar panels, for example, with crops, sheep, and plants for pollinators.
Types of agrivoltaic systems that have been deployed commercially (National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

Given that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has yet to announce agrivoltaic systems as a research priority, Heinrich believes his and Braun’s proposed agrivoltaics bill is the catalyst needed to drive the federal government into action, according to a spokesperson for Heinrich.

This legislation would give USDA the resources needed to fully understand how we can use agrivoltaics as a way to solve several of our greatest challenges in the food and energy sectors,” Heinrich wrote to Canary Media in an email. The act would support the farmers who put food on our tables while meeting the moment on climate.”

The timing of the bills is no accident. Both are so-called marker bills,” which signal the senators’ interest in these areas and their desire that their legislative text be included in the upcoming omnibus farm bill, according to Cathy Day, climate policy coordinator of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which was involved with the Heinrich-Braun bill.

Renewed every five years, the current farm bill expires Sept. 30. Whether the agrivoltaics bills make it into the draft of the new version remains to be seen.

Though agrivoltaics account for a small proportion of overall solar installations, interest has been greatly expanding,” said Stacie Peterson, energy program director of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (“appropriate” was the 1970s term for what we now call sustainability”). Currently, there are more than 340 agrivoltaics sites in the U.S., mainly pairing solar with pollinator habitat or grazing, across more than 33,000 acres and producing a total of 4.8 gigawatts of solar energy, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

At many of these sites, farmers are reaping benefits. Because solar panels provide partial shade and retain more moisture in the soil, they can keep livestock cooler; increase the yields of certain crops, depending on the region, such as lettuce, kale and tomatoes; and cut water usage. These advantages add up to more profit for farmers.

When we can help farmers and producers get more income out of their croplands, it’s a win,” Senator Braun said in a statement.

But while evidence of agrivoltaics’ benefits is cropping up, especially in hot, arid climates, there’s still a lot researchers don’t know, Peterson said. For instance, will agrivoltaics make economic sense for growing sweet potatoes — or grazing llamas?

Heinrich and Braun’s proposed bill would direct the USDA to identify such research gaps, including how to scale agrivoltaics in different places across the country and for different crops or livestock, as well as to set up a research and demonstration network that helps fill in those gaps and shares the results with farmers and ranchers.

If passed, the act’s infusion of funding into agrivoltaics would be tremendous,” Peterson said. Doing that type of research around the country is going to really help farmers understand if agrivoltaics is possible in their area.”

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Alison F. Takemura is staff writer at Canary Media. She reports on home electrification, building decarbonization strategies and the clean energy workforce.