At Elm Branch Solar Farm, about an hour south of Dallas, Texas, a flock of sheep grazes among a vast field of solar panels. The flock’s shepherd, Amanda Stoffels, watches over it as the sheep munch on the grass and nap in the shade provided by the panels.
Stoffels owns this land, but leases it to Lightsource BP, a major solar energy developer that’s 50% owned by British oil major BP. She earns a steady monthly income from the lease payments as well as through her grazing contract with Lightsource, which pays her to graze her sheep around the panels, thereby keeping vegetation in check.
“It’s a new, modern approach to agriculture,” Stoffels says. Her contracts with Lightsource allowed her to quit her 9 to 5 job to become a full-time shepherd.
An emerging industry called agrivoltaics combines solar energy production with agricultural activities such as sheep grazing, beekeeping and crop growing. This land management strategy could help alleviate the tension between farmers and solar developers, groups that often have competing land-use interests.
“Even though the United States is a very large country with a lot of available land, every single square inch of land is either owned, protected or cherished by someone or many people. And many people do not want to see that land change or transform into something different from what it has been,” explained Jordan Macknick, the Lead Energy-Water-Land Analyst for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Agrivoltaic projects, Macknick says, could be a sort of compromise. “So agrivoltaics really offers us that opportunity to continue farming, continue doing these agricultural activities while also producing clean electricity.”
Crop growing on solar farms is still a nascent area of research and some farmers still have concerns.
“Solar takes some of the best land out of production because they want land that’s 1% to 4% slope,” explained Tom Koranek, a landowner and beekeeper who leases land to Lightsource and produces honey on the solar farm. That flat, treeless land is ideal for both solar panels and crop production, he says.
Still, agrivoltaic projects are as close to a win-win for farmers and solar developers as we currently have, and as the solar industry rapidly expands, experts say we can expect to see agrivoltaics expanding right alongside it.
Opening up new markets
The nation will need to build out a massive amount of utility-scale solar to meet its decarbonization goals. Given that agricultural land comprises 44% of the U.S.’ total land area, many solar developers are looking to cite new projects on farms.
“For solar developers, I think the attraction of agrivoltaics is largely that it helps with community acceptance and community excitement about solar projects” explains Becca Jones-Albertus, Director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office. “Grazing land in this country is about a third of all of our land use. And if you’re able to make that a dual use with solar energy production, you have now opened up a huge potential market space that wasn’t open before.”
Today, the U.S. has about five gigawatts of agrivoltaic projects, encompassing more than 35,000 acres across over 30 different states. While this only represents about 3% of the country’s installed solar capacity, it’s a growing industry, and farmers are taking note.
“It’s a much better financial contribution than growing crops,” said Koranek about leasing his land to Lightsource. “Crops are very risky. So some years you may make a good return and other years you may not. And so this is a steady income year every year.”
Lightsource operates a combined 615 megawatts of sheep grazing and solar power projects, around 12% of the nation’s entire agrivoltaic portfolio. The company plans to add an additional 1,058 megawatts worth of projects next year.
Shell is also involved in the space through its 44% stake in solar developer Silicon Ranch. The ranch operates 1,300 megawatts of agrivoltaic projects with an additional 900 megawatts planned over the next two years.
While most solar developers opt to lease land, Silicon Ranch buys it outright, often purchasing degraded farmland that’s no longer in production.
“We want to tell these communities that we are committed for the long haul, and we’re going to become members of these communities in meaningful ways,” said Silicon Ranch’s Co-Founder and CEO, Reagan Farr. “So our business model of owning real estate was a function of how we viewed this asset class.”
Like Lightsource, Silicon Ranch pays local ranchers to graze sheep on their solar farms. But Farr says the company has encountered a sheep shortage, leading Silicon Ranch to invest in its own flock, which it plans to grow to over 30,000 by 2030.
While there are other players in the domestic agrivoltaic market such as Enel Green Power and US Solar, Lightsource and Silicon Ranch remain the largest players in the space. American oil majors such as Chevron and Exxon haven’t invested in agrivoltaics.
Solar plus crop production
While it’s relatively well understood how to graze sheep and create pollinator habitats among solar panels, it’s a trickier prospect to grow crops below and between the panels.
Many crops such as tomatoes and broccoli can theoretically grow beneath solar panels, but the design of the solar array usually needs to be altered, often by elevating the panels so that crops can reach their full height. That gets costly, and while the economics can work for small-scale projects in markets with strong solar incentives, scaling up is a challenge.
“I would say given the existing cost of PV technology, given the existing energy markets that we have in the United States, it will be very challenging to see crop production agrivoltaics happen at a scale bigger than five megawatts at a time,” says Macknick.
But even if we won’t see utility-scale crop production and solar energy projects anytime soon, there’s still a lot of energy in this space. The Department of Energy is currently funding six agrivoltaic projects, with the goal of enabling the deployment of over 1 megawatt of projects focused on crop production, and over 10 megawatts of projects focused on grazing and pollinator habitats.
Lightsource BP says it’s interested in getting into crop production, hoping that one of its sites can serve as a test project next year. Farr says Silicon Ranch isn’t pursuing partnerships yet. But whatever route both companies, and their oil industry backers, take, community relationships and mutually beneficial land-use arrangements are going to be paramount.
“We need to bring value to the communities where we site these solar arrays, or we’re going to lose our social license to operate. And that’s going to hurt our ability to meet some of these very aggressive, renewable energy goals that we have as a country,” said Farr.