How Going Solar Saved a Struggling Colorado Farm
May 2, 2022
Byron Kominek’s farm — rebranded as Jack’s Solar Garden — sits right outside 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 mostly produced hay over the past 50 years. Now, it’s gone through a major transformation that substantially increased its crop and energy production. And as a result, its profits have increased, too.
One of its three pastures is now a solar farm, with 3,200 solar panels mounted on eight-feet-high posts. There are only about 12 solar farms in the country, but 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 $2 million 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 provide electricity for the city.
Researchers from Colorado State University and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) came to help. They currently run programs that study how to turn unused land beneath solar panels into food-producing areas. Essentially, the venture met both the county’s and Kominek’s goals.
The solar farm currently sells an impressive 1.2 megawatts (MW) of power back to the local grid.
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 underneath.
One of the great benefits of agrivoltaic farming is that crop supply tends to grow rapidly. The shade from the panels helps regulate temperatures below. The panels block the sun’s harshest UV rays during its highest points in the day. Then, they allow light to reach the crops through the sides during sunsets and sunrises.
The intermittent shading also reduces the excessive evaporation that intense heat causes. This keeps plants hydrated 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 still harvests a great amount of chard and kale.
In terms of sending power to the community, Jack’s Solar Garden connects the arrays to nearby inverters off the county highway. From there, solar energy transfers to the Xcel Energy grid (the area’s local utility), which distributes enough energy from the farm to power 300 homes yearly. Kominek hopes to donate excess crops to help feed local families, in addition to powering their homes with solar.
The Future of Agrivoltaic Solar Gardens
With tensions running high among long-standing family farms across the U.S. — and close to $2 billion 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 older, previously traditional farmers’ latest interests. Panels improve crop growth, save water and generate more than enough energy to meet a farm’s energy needs, as well as that of homes in the community.
According to the NREL, more than 2 million acres of American farmland could become solar farms within the next decade.
Professor Greg Barron-Gafford at the University of Arizona is 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,” said Barron-Gafford.
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 thrive.
For now, we have Jack’s Solar Garden and others to look at as examples.
[Related: Energy Independence Through Solar]
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Featured image via Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Center, photo taken by Werner Slocum of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory