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Will reliance on solar, wind prove realistic?

Tom J. Bechman solar panel standing above cornfield
REALITY OR WISHFUL THINKING? Even if researchers can figure out a practical way to grow corn under solar panels, would it be economically sound?
Some people outside agriculture see alternative energy as a win for farmers and a solution to climate change. What do you see?

Sheep graze successfully in fields filled with solar panels in Oregon. Vegetables grow under solar panels raised up 6 and 8 feet in Colorado. A researcher drives a utility tractor under solar panels in Arizona. Elsewhere, researchers experiment with grazing cattle in solar fields. Are these signs of things to come, or are they well-meaning efforts that may not lead to anything useful commercially?

“Too early to tell” also sounds like kicking the can down the road, but it’s likely the best response. Maybe these people are on the cutting edge, maybe they’re on the bleeding edge. Here’s a closer look:

The problem

People outside agriculture who buy into climate change see alternative energy sources as an appealing solution. They would replace fossil fuels, often blamed for contributing to greenhouse gases and climate change.

Here’s one person’s theory. By building solar farms on 14 million acres, a sizable portion of U.S. energy needs would be met. OK, but it’s documented that solar power is more inefficient than any energy source except hydroelectric. Say the figure is accurate. If 14 million acres were taken out of U.S. corn and soybean production, nearly an 8% drop, and half those acres are corn, it would drop U.S. corn production almost 1.25 billion bushels per year. Who feeds the world?

The solution?

Another equally intelligent person outside agriculture who believes strongly in climate change sees the answer as blending growing crops and harvesting solar energy at the same time. Farmers still get income, solar developers sell electricity and the climate benefits — or so this person believes. Is it realistic?

That’s where researchers come in. Experiments at the University of Arizona confirm that crops produce well under solar panels. In fact, in that environment, shading spreads out the time period when crops use sunlight, plus cooler solar panels from evaporative cooling by plants are more efficient. What’s not known, researchers acknowledge, is if those benefits apply in the Midwest or Northeast, or if panels are raised to 10 feet to grow corn. They will learn more when a research project at the University of Illinois funded by federal grants ramps up.

Preliminary indications are that raising solar panels from standard height to 6 to 8 feet of clearance above the ground adds less than 5% extra cost. Yet some solar developers contend that’s in the ballpark of $15,000 or more per acre. We will leave actual calculations and estimates for those in the field. However, one solar developer balked at the idea of raising panels when Indiana Prairie Farmer mentioned it, implying it wasn’t realistic.

Will ongoing research into solar installations change the picture? Or will combining agriculture and solar prove to be like the 1980s fad of growing canola in the Midwest and the drive to test various species of miscanthus for growing tall grass for feedstock for ethanol in the early 2000s? You won’t find many canola fields in Indiana, and many of those tall grass demo plots are long forgotten.

I still remember the words of Jim Cummings, my vo-ag teacher: “Don’t be the first to try something, but don’t be the last.” That was good advice 50-plus years ago, and it’s good advice today.

Comments? Email tom.bechman@farmprogress.com.

TAGS: Crops solar
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