How Going Solar Saved a Struggling Colorado Farm

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How Going Solar Saved a Struggling Colorado Farm

Byron Kominek’s farm — rebranded to Jack’s Solar Garden — is located right outside of Boulder, Colorado in the city of Longmount. It’s one of the most thriving agrivoltaic farms in the country. 

However, its 24 acres weren’t always prosperous.

The farm was mostly producing hay over the past 50 years. Now it has gone through a major transformation that substantially increased its crop and energy production. And as a result, its profits, too.

One of its three pastures is now a solar farm with 3,200 solar panels mounted on eight-feet-high posts. While there are only about 12 solar farms in the country, Jack’s stands out.

How Kominek Turned His Farm Into a Solar Garden

Transforming the Kominek family farm into Jack’s Solar Garden didn’t happen overnight. 

Kominek’s land was technically considered historic farmland, which held back Boulder County regulators from approving the solar garden project. However, Kominek eventually got approval, as well as two million dollars from the county to develop the agrivoltaic farm.

Kominek knew the county had a goal to move toward 100% renewable energy, so he hoped the city would work with him to help his land become profitable again (and also provide electricity for the city).

Researchers from Colorado State University and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory came to help. They currently run programs that  study how to turn unused land beneath solar panels into food-producing areas. Essentially, both the county and Kominek’s goals were met. 

The solar farm currently sells an impressive 1.2 megawatts (MW) of power back to the local grid. 

[Related: New Solar Projects Brigns CSU Pueblo to Net Zero Efficiency]

How the Solar Garden Works 

Kominek made sure there was enough space between the rows of panels to allow his tractor through and tend to the crops growing underneath. 

One of the great benefits of agrivoltaic farming is that crop supply tends to rapidly grow. The shade from the panels helps regulate temperatures underneath. The panels block the sun’s harshest UV rays during its highest points in the day, but then allow light to reach the crops through the sides during sunsets and sunrises. 

The intermittent shading also reduces excessive evaporation caused by intense heat. This keeps plants hydrated for longer without needing constant watering. Additionally, the gradual evaporation helps keep the solar panels cooler, prolonging their efficiency. 

Currently, the farm grows peppers, squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, beets, carrots, turnips, and various lettuce varieties under the panels. Even in November, the farm is still harvesting a great amount of chard and kale. 

In terms of sending power to the community, Jack’s Solar Garden does so by connecting the arrays to nearby inverters off the county highway. From there, the solar energy is transferred to the Xcel Energy grid (the area’s local utility), which distributes enough energy from the farm to power 300 homes per year. Kominek hopes to donate excess crops to help feed families in the community in addition to powering their homes with solar.

[Related: Five Colorado Agrivoltaic Farms and Organizations to Check Out]

The Future of Agrivoltaic Solar Gardens

With tensions running high among long-standing family farms across the U.S., and close to two billion dollars devoted to renewable energy in President Biden’s new infrastructure bill, both farmers and clean energy developers can now work together. 

Farming with solar panels is one of the latest interests of older, previously traditional farmers. They improve crop growth, save water, and generate more than enough energy to meet the farm’s energy needs as well as homes in the surrounding community

According to the NREL, more than two million acres of American farmland could become solar farms within the next decade. 

Greg Barron-Gafford, a professor at the University of Arizona, is considered an expert in the field. He explains that “[w]ater is the reason we have to have real big arguments about where we’re going to get our food from in the future.”

One of Barron-Gafford’s research projects showed that crops grown in an Arizona desert under solar panels needed 50% less water. 

“If you really want to build infrastructure in a way that is not going to compete with food and could actually take advantage of our dwindling resources in terms of water in a really efficient way, this is something to look at,” says Barron-Gafford.

A number of other researchers emphasize how federal incentives should be in place to help farmers add solar panels to their land. Local rebates and incentives, as well as a portion of the renewable energy infrastructure bill devoted to new solar projects, are two solutions that would help agrivoltaics truly take off. 

For now, we have Jack’s Solar Garden and others to look at as an example.

[Related: Energy Independence Through Solar]

Contact Freedom Solar to Join the Solar Movement

If you’re interested in installing solar panels on your home or business, contact Freedom Solar today. Call us at +1 (800) 504-2337 or complete our consultation form and one of our solar specialists will be in touch!


Featured image via Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Center, photo taken by Werner Slocum of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory

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