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Hoosiers To Lead Rural Solar Power Revolution

Dec 07, 2023

Indiana has been drifting around in the solar power doldrums, but it is poised to lead the transtition to agrivoltaics throughout the US agricultural industry.



US farms are beginning to transition from energy-sucking, water-guzzling, habitat destroying epicenters of greenhouse gas emissions into hosts for solar power plants, biodiversity havens, and carbon sinks. That can translate into an economic lifeline for farmers, and that explains why the rural solar power movement is steamrolling ahead, with Indiana providing a good example despite its red-state political profile.

Agrivoltaic designs refer to solar arrays that complement some types of agricultural activity. Agrivoltaic arrays have been found to create a cooling, partly shaded microclimate that benefits both the solar panels and certain crops, while mollifying a rising tide of rural solar critics.

Livestock grazing and pollinator habitats are the main focus of attention, and other agricultural use cases are also beginning to emerge (see more coverage here).

The benefits to farmers are beginning to chip away at partisan opposition to renewable energy. A case in point is Indiana, where opposition to rural solar power plants runs hot and heavy, and Republican officials oppose ESG (environment, social, governance) principles.

Nevertheless, parts of the state are attracting solar developers with access to existing roads, transmission lines, and plenty of open space that has already been devoted to industrial-scale agriculture.

Lightsource bp, for example, recently flipped the switch on its 173 megawatt (DC) Bellfower Solar project, located near Indianapolis, Indiana.

"The Bellflower solar farm brings many environmental benefits to Indiana, in addition to improving air quality by reducing carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation," notes Lightsource.

The project includes a commercial honeymaking operation run by a local beekeeper. Another local farmer will graze sheep in the array, which will help Lightsource reduce mowing costs. The sheep are also expected to help with soil health and reseeding as they go about their business.

Construction of the solar power plant included planting 800 acres within the solar array with pollinator-friendly native plants and grasses suitable for grazing. Another 10 acres of curated pollinator gardens were planted with dozens of different flowering plants.

Lightsource also notes that the Bellflower array is participating in a four-year, Energy Department-funded research program aimed at assessing the benefits of hosting pollinator habitats at utility scale solar power plants. Five solar arrays were included in the study when the funding was announced in February of 2020. Currently seven are enrolled, including Bellflower.

Under the title of "Pollinator Habitat Aligned with Solar Energy" or PHASE for short, the research team includes the University of Illinois Chicago and the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, and the Energy Department's Argonne National Laboratory and National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

A slew of high profile public and private sector renewable energy stakeholders are also along for the ride in supporting roles, as well as the organizations Conservation Blueprint, The Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund, and the American Solar Grazing Association.

PHASE is not just a data collection exercise. The solar power-plus-pollinators project has a purpose, and that is to create an online seed selection tool and cost-benefit calculator to take the guesswork out of fostering biodiversity in and around solar power plants.

The global design firm Stantec has been tasked with a leadership role, and they are particularly excited. "We’re leading the development of four tools to support solar industry decision-making on the use of pollinator-friendly vegetation," they explain. "The tools include an implementation manual, cost-benefit calculator, seed mix selection tool, and pollinator habitat assessment module. Together, they help guide vegetation decision making throughout a project."

If all goes according to plan, the information gleaned from the Bellflower array in Indiana will help solar developers introduce more multi-use solar power plants to farmland all across the country.

Meanwhile, Lightsource (a joint venture of the oil and gas giant bp, by the way) is not letting the grass grow under its feet. The solar developer was among the first in the US to promote the overlap between solar panels and agriculture, including the creation of carbon sinks that could help farmers connect with new marketing opportunities, and it is eager to showcase more.

On June 1, Lightsource announced that it has secured $460 million in financing for two new solar power projects totaling 368 megawatts, including the 188 MW Honeysuckle Solar project in Indiana and a 180 MW array in Louisiana.

The Honeysuckle project will be among the first solar plants in the US to host a new initiative of the Bee & Butterfly Habitat Fund, called the Solar Synergy program.

"The program provides tools and expertise to utility-scale solar developers seeking to cultivate high-quality pollinator habitats at their projects," Lightsource explains. The care package includes pollinator-friendly seed mixtures, a monitoring program, documentation of the site's carbon-sinking capability, and networking with commercial beekeepers.

By helping to support domestic commercial beekeeping, solar arrays can support other honey-dependent businesses throughout the US food production and nutrition industries. The US currently imports more than 70% of its honey supply.

As a showcase for the Solar Synergy program, the Honeysuckle solar power plant will build on the Bellflower experience, with a mix of 25 species of grasses and flowers within the array, complemented by a purpose-planted pollinator garden with more than 50 species taking up 20 acres around the perimeter.

In another show of utility-scale solar leadership for Indiana, the state's Republican US Senator, Mike Braun, has just teamed up with Democratic US Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico to introduce a new bill titled the Agrivoltaics Research and Demonstration Act of 2023.

"Agrivoltaics keeps farmland in production, generates clean energy, and strengthens rural economies," said Senator Heinrich in a press statement.

"When we can help farmers and producers get more income out of their croplands, it's a win," agreed Senator Braun.

"Agrivoltaic systems are an important tool in our toolbox to meet clean energy deployment goals while helping to maintain strong agriculture-based rural economies," the joint statement continued.

The Agrivoltaics Research and Demonstration Act of 2023 authorizes $15 million per year for the US Department of Agriculture, for five fiscal years beginning in 2024.

The new funding will fill research gaps in the agrivoltaic field and enable USDA to formalize, network, and expand its solar-plus-farming activities in coordination with other agencies, with an eye on different types of farming operations, and strategies for scaling up agrivoltaic arrays while keeping farmland in production.

If the bill manages to become law, that should help take some steam out of the arguments against rural solar. Though some of the opposition is coming from local residents, reports of a coordinated misinformation campaign have been surfacing.

Last fall, the Guardian profiled one local landowner (though not a local resident) who has been in a pitched battle to prevent construction of the soon-to-be biggest solar array in the entire country, the Mammoth PV Solar Park in northeastern Indiana.

Apparently all that hard work has not paid off, at least not on the opposition side. The developer behind the project is the US-based branch of the global firm Doral Renewable Energy Resources Group, which is in hot pursuit of agrivoltaic opportunities. They are still on track to get the three-phase Mammoth project up and running for a total capacity of 1.6 gigawatts.

Find me on Spoutible: @TinaMCasey or LinkedIn @TinaMCasey or Mastodon @Casey or Post: @tinamcasey

Photo: Agrivoltaics in action: sheep graze in a solar power plant (photo courtesy of Lightsource bp).

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.

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