USDA officials help launch agrivoltaic demo projects at Minnesota State Fair

USDA agrivoltaic demo projects

Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) joined Great Plains Institute (GPI) and Big River Farms on Aug. 25 at the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul on to announce the “Solar Farmland Access for Emerging Farmers” demonstration projects alongside project partners Connexus Energy and US Solar.

As the country and Minnesota both take steps to convert our energy supply to be derived from carbon-free sources, this pilot project is setting out to solve for how solar energy development can be increased while also preserving agricultural land for the people who grow the state and nation’s food. Funded by the Mortenson Family Foundation and with additional support from the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) and Argonne National Lab, these agrivoltaics projects aim to demonstrate safe and scalable operational practices for electric cooperatives and solar site owners to provide farmland access for emerging farmers inside the fence of solar facilities. 

“With thoughtful planning and procurement, the community benefits of multi-acre solar projects can be numerous,” said Brian Ross, VP of renewable energy for Great Plains Institute. “It’s important that we are stacking solutions to local food production and access into the clean energy transition.”

In 2022, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture established the nation’s first Emerging Farmers Office, with the intention of helping to remove barriers to farming for those new to the profession, such as new Americans or first-generation farmers who lack access to land or capital. Farmland access has been identified by the Emerging Farmers Office as the most common challenge that emerging farmers face.

“We’re thankful to the Mortenson Family Foundation, our solar farmland access partners Connexus Energy and US Solar, NREL, and GPI for their commitments to this work exploring a novel approach to helping solve the land access issue,” said Sophia Lenarz-Coy, executive director of The Food Group and Big River Farms. “It is encouraging to see the crops that have been established this year as we plan for continued investigation and exploration next year. We’re proud member-owners of Connexus Energy and are thrilled with their commitment to community.”

Big River Farms, a program of The Food Group, is an incubator farm and host of the annual Emerging Farmers conference, while the mission of Great Plains Institute is to accelerate the transition to net-zero carbon emissions for the benefit of people, the economy, and the environment. Results of the demonstration project will be published by GPI, NREL, and on the AgriSolar Clearinghouse.

“For nearly a decade, Connexus Energy has established a track record of thoughtful stewardship of the land under and around solar arrays,” said Greg Ridderbusch, president and CEO of Connexus Energy. “Safe, affordable, reliable, and increasingly sustainable electric service are our priorities. We’re delighted to partner with our member, Big River Farms, as well as the research partners, to document these safe and scalable practices.”

Connexus Energy, the Midwest’s largest electric cooperative, has been nationally recognized for its “perfect power” service reliability, grid innovation, and solar land-use practices. Connexus also requires its solar arrays to meet Minnesota’s standard for pollinator-friendly ground cover – in 2018, the cooperative established a commercial apiary in the solar array at its headquarters. This apiary makes honey harvested from the flowering solar arrays that are available for purchase with proceeds benefiting local nonprofits. In 2023, Connexus partnered with Moore Syndication, owners of the ‘Louie the Lightning Bug’ character, to create an activity book that teaches kids, and their adults, about solar facilities.

“US Solar embraces agrivoltaics and low-impact solar design, development, and management principles across all of its projects, whether through pollinator friendly habitat, beekeeping, grazing sheep or horticultural partnerships,” said Peter Schmitt, director of project development at US Solar. “This type of dual-use of the land helps us foster deeper relationships with farmers and local community members, while providing agricultural, environmental, and development benefits.” Since its founding, US Solar has been committed to achieving the highest standard on the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources’ Habitat Friendly Solar Site Assessment, creating more than a square mile of privately financed pollinator habitat in Minnesota. They have also partnered with local, regional, and national organizations to pilot innovative agrivoltaic approaches and support research leading to the development of replicable best practices as agrivoltaics continues to grow in the solar industry. 

The program is part of NREL’s InSPIRE study, which is the nation’s largest and longest-running study of solar farm design and management practices that provide dual uses for agriculture and
co-benefits for ecosystems.

“As part of the InSPIRE study network of sites, the National Renewable Energy Lab will discover and document the safe and scalable practices and processes that can enable farmland access to solar sites by emerging farmers,” said Jordan Macknick, lead energy-water-land analyst for NREL. “Utilities and solar site operators trust and utilize NREL’s research to make decisions that are best for their organizations.”

Minnesota State Fair educational display

Partners in the demonstration project gathered to make the announcement at the Minnesota State Fair in front of an educational exhibit located in the Agriculture Horticulture Building. One panel in the educational exhibit highlights emerging farmers and the collaboration between Big River Farms, Great Plains Institute, NREL, Connexus Energy, and US Solar. Another panel calls attention to how solar farms benefit pollinators and how Minnesota State Fair food favorites are dependent on pollinators. Guests of the Minnesota State Fair are invited to come see the exhibit while visiting the Fair now through September 4, 2023.

New ERA for electric cooperatives

In addition to the demonstration project, speakers highlighted a new federal grant program called Empowering Rural America, or New ERA. New ERA is part of the Inflation Reduction Act, which was passed into law in 2022. The USDA’s New ERA program is the largest investment in electric cooperatives since the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 and was created with the purpose of helping rural electric cooperatives fund clean energy, energy storage, and transmission projects.

“USDA’s long-time commitment to renewable and cleaner energy is enhanced even further through the New Empowering Rural America program,” USDA’s Rural Development State Director for Minnesota Colleen Landkamer said. “Investments made under this program will provide rural communities with an affordable and reliable power grid, while supporting new job opportunities and helping to lower energy costs in the future.”

Cooperatives across the country have until Sept. 15 to request funding through New ERA.

“New ERA’s historic investment in rural electrification will clear the way for rural electric cooperatives to make long awaited investments in clean energy that will help reduce costs for their member-owners, create rural jobs, provide new opportunities for farmers, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Erik Hatlestad, energy democracy program director at Minnesota rural nonprofit CURE and a founding director of the Rural Power Coalition. Hatlestad and the Rural Power Coalition successfully advocated for New ERA’s inclusion in the Inflation Reduction Act.

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