Growing agrivoltaics: Conference harvests California, German know-how for farmland solar

Agrivoltaics Mechatron
Mechatron Solar’s new dual-axis AgriTracker at RE+ 2023.

California and Germany are comparing notes on agrivoltaics development in an effort to move the industry through its early stages of adoption in the Golden State. At the first California Germany Agrivoltaics Conference, held at the University of California at Davis on Nov. 1, researchers, technology providers, project developers and government administrators combined ideas to bolster adoption.

“Agrivoltaics is still new to the United States, and mostly involves pilot or test installations, while Germany is further ahead. That’s why we’ve come together,” said Mirko Wutzler, VP of the German American Chamber of Commerce of California (GACC).

Since many agrivoltaics installations must be designed differently in terms of light requirements and the particular PV technology selected for specific crops, “structural integration optimization is very important to this industry,” said Wutzler, also the moderator of the conference keynote session.

The conference was held in partnership with the Clean Coalition, and was a joint initiative of the co-organizers AHK USA – San Francisco, Sunzaun, Aztec Solar and Solar4America, supported by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Protection.

Agrivoltaics a must for renewable goals

One key speaker observation about the value of agrivoltaics is its strong potential to help California — and the United States — reach ambitious clean energy goals. “Agrivoltaics really could be a key part of our climate goals, as well as keeping agriculture viable not only California and the West, but also across the country,” said Kara Heckert, the Resilient Agriculture West advisor to the American Farmland Trust.

“We take a very holistic approach to agriculture and that is what we see with solar and renewable energy. California is a microcosm for most issues facing agriculture in the United States. We have 43 million acres of agriculture here and 400-plus crop types. And we have critically drafted groundwater basins here. For every issue you can think of, it’s happening in California,” said Heckert.

“I’m stuck on the land/water/energy nexus, and agrivoltaics is a critical piece of that nexus. Strategic deployment of [agricultural] solar may offer a way to repurpose fallow land or temporarily repurpose agricultural land, while replacing lost income and creating new jobs,” she suggested.

Apart from revitalizing farmland, the expansion of agrivoltaics is a critical component of a combined solution to reaching clean energy goals, pointed out Bernadette Del Chiaro, the executive director of the California Solar & Storage Association (Calssa). “California needs 6 GW of new renewable energy every single year, starting last year. We’ve never done that before. At best, maybe we’ve hit three gigs in a good year. So we need to double what we’re building today. On the distributed side, we’re talking about the power of incorporating solar into where we live, work, play and grow food,” she said.

Campus PPAs for agrivoltaics

One approach to supporting agrivoltaics is university PPAs with energy-producing research projects. “We’re exploring kind of a novel arrangement, where the utilities department at UC Davis will purchase the energy that research systems produce. We have research equipment that’s generating value; that’s an interesting model for a campus,” said Tom Patten, an electrical engineer at the UC Davis Power & Lights operation.

At the same time, universities and colleges can help in the effort to educate farmers about the value of agrivoltaics, suggested Patten. “The farming industry needs to be educated about the benefits of having a solar system as part of their operational revenues,” he said.

One innovative research project at UC Davis considers the effect of using red and blue light filters on different crops to help optimize photosynthesis. The research is being conducted by Majdi Abou Najm, an Associate Professor at the College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences.

One technology provider at the conference, Mechatron Solar, presented a new agrivoltaic dual-axis tracker — the M16KD — that features curved light filters between bifacial panel columns to permit greater light diffusion for crops. “We are building dual-axis tracking systems over some Chardonnay vines that are very expensive: the the owner keeps telling us that he makes $1,000 a year from each vine. So while he treasures those vines like his life, he agreed with the benefits,” said Michael Fakukakis, the CEO of Mechatron.

Community Choice Aggregators as agrivoltaics enablers

One requirement for the successful expansion of agrivoltaics will be energy aggregation, suggested, Patten. “The aggregation of farms with multiple meters could be a game changer,” he said.

In California, Community Choice Aggregators (CCAs) may be a key player in the growing adoption of agrivoltaics, since the non-profit organizations are committed to the expansion of green electricity, far more so than some traditional utilities.

“There’s a lot of agribusiness in the county, as well as wineries in Napa. We want to support them in any way we can. One part of that is helping them with their energy use on site. So we offer technical assistance through our MCE Agricultural Industrial Resource (AIR) Program air to provide site operational improvement and technological improvements as well,” said Martin Bond, senior business development manager at MCE.

AIR offers rebates of 20 cents per kWh for participants. Non-profit MCE was the first CCA in California, begun in 2010 and now serving 1.5 million residents and businesses in 37 member communities across four San Francisco Bay Area counties: Contra Costa, Marin, Napa and Solano.

Need for state reform & support for agrivoltaics

In a variety of early solar markets, state and federal incentives have been key to the commercialization of solutions. But agrivoltaics is just now hitting the radar in many state energy commissions.

“We don’t have any agrivoltaics pilot project funding in the state of California. Colorado is a bit ahead of us, and Washington’s also a bit ahead of us,” lamented Heckert.

One hurdle for agrivoltaics in California is legacy legislation that can block non-agricultural activities on farms. The Williamson Act, for example, has encouraged some county governments not to issue permits for agrivoltaic development.

“The Williamson Act, also known as the California Land Conservation Act of 1965, enables local governments to enter into contracts with private landowners for the purpose of restricting specific parcels of land to agricultural or related open space use,” explains the California Department of Conservation (DOC). “In return, landowners receive property tax assessments which are much lower than normal because they are based upon farming and open space uses as opposed to full market value,” the DOC adds. New state legislation has been proposed to clear this hurdle.

One federal effort to smooth the combination of agriculture and energy production came from the U.S. Department of Energy in December 2022. DOE announced $8 million for six solar energy research projects across six states and the District of Columbia that will “provide new economic opportunities for farmers, rural communities, and the solar industry. The funding supports agrivoltaics — the co-location of agricultural production and solar energy generation on the same land — and aims to reduce barriers to utility-and community-scale solar energy deployment while maximizing benefits for farmers and local communities,” DOE said.

DOE’s Foundational Agrivoltaic Research for Megawatt Scale (FARMS) funding program “seeks to develop replicable models for agrivoltaics that can provide new economic opportunities while potentially reducing land-use conflicts. DOE is focused on making agrivoltaic practices across the country easier to adopt, lowering the cost, and maximizing benefits for farmers, rural communities, and the solar industry,” the agency stated.


Charles W. Thurston is a contributor to Solar Builder.

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