Emerging Opportunities for Agrivoltaics in New Mexico

posted in: Research | 0

By Brian Naughton, Co-Founder Circle Two, LLC

Image: Lettuce growing within the solar panel array at Jack’s Solar Garden. Photo credit: AgriSolar Clearinghouse

On February 7, 2024, community members and experts from various organizations gathered at the USDA-ARS Southwestern Cotton Ginning Research Laboratory in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to discuss the promising field of agrivoltaics. This emerging approach involves co-developing the same area of land for both solar photovoltaic power generation and agricultural uses. The meeting aimed to share insights into different agrivoltaic systems and their potential benefits for addressing energy, water, and food production challenges in the region. Attendees heard from speakers working in the field of agrivoltaics from neighboring states of Colorado and Arizona as well as researchers within New Mexico, each providing a unique perspective on how agrivoltaics could benefit farmers and surrounding communities in New Mexico.

First up was a presentation from Byron Kominek of Jack’s Solar Garden in Boulder County Colorado. Byron shared the story of how his family’s farm, named after his Grandpa Jack, transitioned from a hay growing operation with increasingly challenging financial circumstances to the thriving agrivoltaics operation it is today. Installing solar panels on a portion of the farm not only enabled Byron to continue making a living off the land but it also created a space he could share with the community around him including researchers, artists, other farmers, students, and the general public. To facilitate and manage the very diverse activities on the farm, Byron established the non-profit Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Center to showcase clean energy generation coupled with local food production. The goal of the Learning Center is to educate and inspire communities to improve land stewardship within solar arrays. As part of his trip to Las Cruces, Byron made multiple stops to educate community members, farmers, law-makers and government officials on the benefits that agrivoltaics could bring to New Mexico and shared effective policy ideas to make it a reality.

Among the multitude of activities highlighted at Jack’s Solar Garden was a research project from Colorado State University, led by Professor Alan Knapp, investigating the response of grasslands within a solar array. A high-level result is that the grassland biomass within the array was 95% of that outside the array, which is impressive considering the diminished sunlight available to the grasses. Given that utility solar installations are often installed on rangeland, the resulting changes to grassland ecosystems are important to understand. Professor Knapp’s students have explored these impacts not only at Jack’s Solar Garden but also in larger utility arrays and shared some very interesting results in a webinar hosted by the Colorado Agrivoltaics Learning Center this past year.

Image: A rendering of the proposed agrivoltaics system at a farm showing
farming activities that could be powered by the solar energy that is generated.

The next speaker was Dr. Ken Armjio from Sandia National Laboratories highlighting a new research project he is leading to commercialize a unique solar mounting system that uses tensile wires instead of the typical rigid steel beams which may provide specific benefits to agrivoltaic applications. In addition to being a renewable energy researcher at Sandia, Ken’s family also owns and operates a farm in Sabinal, just south of Belen. Ken shared how he began to notice more negative impacts from increasing heat and intense sun on crops and saw the potential benefits that shade could provide. While installing trellising structures for berries, Ken realized the similarities and potential compatibility of this tensile agrivoltaics technology and began working with a company called SkySun to further develop the idea.

The agrivoltaics system is being tested at Sandia this summer with plans to deploy it at the Rio Grande Community Farm later this year, working with engineers and biologists from the University of New Mexico to evaluate the power performance and crop biology. The system will be installed as a microgrid with a battery, able to power irrigation pumps and an electric tractor among other farm power needs. The team plans to hold public tours once the system is operational, so stay tuned. Additionally, Ken and his team are working with Jemez Mountain Electric Cooperative to conduct a preliminary analysis of how the technology could be deployed within the JEMC service territory while benefiting local farmers and power grid resiliency.

Professor Greg Barron-Gafford from the University of Arizona spoke next about the intersection of food, energy, and water and how agrivoltaics increase resilience across these critical areas. Located outside of Tucson against the backdrop of Biosphere 2, the research team Greg assembled contributed extensively to the foundational work of agrivoltaics in arid environments which is especially relevant to our New Mexico context. The studies repeatedly demonstrate that the synergies between crops and solar panels are mutually beneficial. Most crops do not need, in fact often suffer, in full sunlight so the microenvironment helps to increase photosynthesis and reduce water needs in most crops. Meanwhile, the plants help to cool the solar panels through their transpiration process whicht increases the efficiency of solar production.

Beyond the research, Greg and his team are also highly engaged with educational programs, especially with local Tucson Public Schools. In his presentation, Greg shared a project at Borton Elementary School where students are taking measurements and observations of crops growing in raised beds at the school, one with a solar panel above and one without. Hands-on activities help students learn about the different microenvironments created by solar panels and how they impact both plants and solar energy production. You can hear about it directly from the students in this fun video. The UA team also worked with researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to expand an educational agrivoltaics game to include the environment representative of Arizona. It’s a fun little game you can play on your smartphone.

Image: Borton Elementary School in Tucson built an agrivoltaics outdoor test lab where students can take measurements and observations about different microenvironments. 

To close out the meeting, Dr. Lara Prihodko, Associate Director of the New Mexico State University Agricultural Experiment Station Administration and Dr. Derek Whitelock of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Cotton Ginning Research Station provided a preview of some exciting new agrivoltaic research efforts coming to New Mexico. The team secured federal funding to leverage the agrivoltaics infrastructure capabilities of New Mexico State University along with USDA scientific personnel to explore strategies and technologies for deployment, operation, and decommissioning of various agrivoltaics designs in New Mexico and the arid Southwest. The team aims to identify characteristics that maximize agricultural, ecological, and economic co-benefits. While the final details are still being worked out, the project will involve one cropland and one rangeland experimental site on NMSU-owned land. Within the sites, one or more agrivoltaic arrays will be constructed, and data collection will focus on agricultural indicators related to crop or rangeland production and other ecosystem services within agrivoltaic arrays compared to a common baseline.

The presentations and discussions at this agrivoltaics gathering in Las Cruces highlighted the immense potential of this innovative approach to combine renewable energy production with sustainable agriculture and resilient food systems. From exploring novel technologies like tensile solar mounting systems, to analyzing crop performance and ecosystem impacts, to engaging students through hands-on educational initiatives – the work being done in this space is truly exciting. With New Mexico State University and USDA expanding new agrivoltaic research efforts tailored to the arid Southwest, our state is well-positioned to help unlock the multitude of benefits that agrivoltaic systems can provide. As our communities face increasing climate challenges, pioneering solutions like agrivoltaics that simultaneously address food, water, and energy needs could prove to be a powerful path toward a more sustainable and resilient future for New Mexico.

Photo credit: AgriSolar Clearinghouse

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *