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On Colorado’s North Fork Valley, Mark Waltermire can grow hundreds of varieties of vegetables. He hopes to soon add electricity to his community offering.

 

by Allen Best

At his 16-acre Thistle Whistle Farm on Colorado’s Western Slope, Mark Waltermire has become skilled at converting sunshine into useful products.

He grows several varieties of sweet corn and potatoes, 100 types of hot peppers, close to 50 varieties of sweet peppers, and more than 150 varieties of heirloom tomatoes on his farm near Hotchkiss, in the North Fork Valley. For good measure he also grows ground cherries, bitter melons and long beans. His is a museum of agricultural productivity and possibilities.

By May of 2024, he also hopes to be producing a half-megawatt of electricity in synergy called agrivoltaics.

Thistle Whistle is part of an agrivoltaics project that has been awarded a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, one of 25 grants handed out as part of the National Community Solar Partnership. The program was launched in January in an attempt to further community-based solar projects.

Denver-based SunShare LLC also won a $50,000 award for expansion of a project in New Mexico. It has community solar gardens in Colorado and several other states.

The two Colorado-based programs will be eligible to win grants of up to $200,000 in the next round of the competition. Yet a third stage will offer grants of up to $150,000. The program altogether has $10 million in funding.

In the North Fork Valley project, another small farm is yet to be incorporated. The rules require projects of a megawatt of generation or more and preferably in more than one location. Total production capacity is capped at five megawatts, still well short of the 20 megawatts that defines the lower limit of utility-scale solar.

Waltermire had community goals in mind when he began talking about inserting solar panels amid his rows of vegetables and fruits. He believes in the idea of locally generated electricity and at modest scales.

Personal frustration also drove his quest to pursue agrivoltaics. Sunshine, his benefactor, can be an abuser.

“There are several things I would like to grow but don’t because of the intensity of the sunlight and the heat,” he says. “Agrivoltaics, if set up properly, will enable me to grow things that I love to grow but shy away from in the middle of summer, especially.”

Greens, such as for salads, have been difficult during summer in a valley where mid-summer temperatures often exceed 90 degrees. As for sweet peppers, they grow well but tend to blister when ripening. Waltermire thinks a bit of shade might create what he calls “more gentle” growing conditions.

What does survive the blistering summer sun gets offered at farmers’ markets from Telluride to Aspen and beyond to the Front Range.

Pete Kolbenschlag, director of the Paonia-based Colorado Farm & Food Alliance, the lead in the application, said he hopes to create a model in Delta County for rural climate action.

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In growing plants and harvesting electricity, there can be tradeoffs, he says, but the goal here is to figure out where exactly those tradeoffs are maximizing production but also maximizing production of electricity.

“Those are the types of questions we are interested in examining. What are the benefits to both—and where are the tradeoffs, and how do you manage the systems to try to get the best returns from either of those systems?” explains Kolbenschlag.

Water ranks high among the questions that team members hope their project can answer. Specifically, how much can the shade of solar panels aid in retention of soil moisture? And how can soil moisture help cool panels and make them more productive?

Brad Tonnessen, a research scientist at the Rogers Mesa Research Station, has agreed to conduct research into these questions about agrivoltaics.

Whether this project goes forward, though, still remains in doubt. It all comes down to costs and revenue. Can Waltermire and other small farmers create enough revenue to offset their investments? The local electrical cooperative, Delta-Montrose Electric, will accept the electricity, but still to be determined is how much it will pay.

Waltermire says he also needs to get funding before he can realistically start planning what he will grow next year.

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This project must be seen as a decidedly small-scale venture with an emphasis on local and community. Larger projects have provoked animosity.

For example, an October 2022 story in the Guardian (‘It got nasty’: the battle to build the US’s biggest solar power farm) told a story from Indiana where 13,000 acres of prime farmland have been targeted for solar panels. A wealthy landowner has set out to defeat the proposal, and—well, the headline sums it up.

“The ongoing fight is a sobering reminder of how (President Joe) Biden’s ambitions for a mass transition to renewables, aimed at averting the worst ravages of the climate crisis, will in significant part be decided by the vagaries and veto points of thousands of local officials, county boards and (organized) opposition (by wealthy landowners) across the U.S,” the Guardian says.

That same article points to both sources of tensions and irony amid these fields of primarily corn.

One of the farmers who wants to lease 1,750 acres of his land for the solar project sees “solar is an evolution of farming rather than a betrayal of it. He already harvests the sunlight for his crops, he reasons. He considers fears of food shortages taking land out of production overblown given that 40% of all U.S. corn is already mashed up for another form of energy—ethanol, which is added to gasoline. Farmers are also routinely paid by the federal government to keep tracts of land free from crops, in order to bolster the price of corn.”

As for local economic benefits, that same farmer In Indiana says he will make five times more from leasing his land for harvesting and converting sunlight into electricity than he gets for growing corn.

 

Steve Ela, apples, Hotchkiss, September 2017. Photo/Allen Best

Steve Ela grows apples and other fruit in his orchards near Hotchkiss for sale at farmers’ markets along the Front Range. 2017 photo/Allen Best

Colorado has no large-scale plans at the same stage for solar. NextEra Energy and a corporate farmer, Crossroads Agriculture, recently announced their plans for one gigabyte of energy, although on dryland and not irrigated farmland. See: “A gigawatt of solar in Colorado’s wheat country.”

Xcel Energy has been taking bids and very likely has some other interesting and ambitious proposals for solar farms along its 550- to 600-mile (and $1.7 to $2 billion) high-voltage transmission line looping around eastern Colorado.

In Delta County, a far, far smaller proposal ignited controversy. That 80-megawatt project on Garnett Mesa was vetoed by county commissioners in response to opposition from neighbors who objected to industrial power production in an agricultural setting. Guzman Energy and others, agreed to run sheep amid the panels, and the commissioners approved it.

The North Fork team envisions something much smaller a megawatt or two instead of 80 or 8,000.

“It will take a lot of different approaches to get the energy we need from renewables, and where we locate them and how we can co-locate them with other uses will be super important questions,” says Kolbenschlag.

This is not the only model, he explains, but rather one that is community scale and with direct community benefits.

“Innovative solar projects involving agrivoltaics and community ownership models promise significant benefits for rural agricultural communities, and there isn’t a better place than the Western Slope to demonstrate that potential and to provide a model that can be replicated,” says team member Alex Jahp, who works at Paonia-based Solar Energy International, which trains solar installers.

Jahp also points to Delta County’s warming climate. “Delta County is one of the places facing the worst effects of climate change in terms of temperature rise,” he points out.

At his farm, which he has been working for 18 years, Waltermire says he hasn’t necessarily detected warming and aridification trends. What he is confident he has seen is greater variability. “Just crazy weather events seem to be more common,” he says.

What drew him to farming? “It does seem like I have found my passion, and the challenge is to make it work. I would be unhappy if I didn’t have a challenge in life,” he says. He also has found that being part of a community and playing a supportive role in that community is crucial to his happiness.

In that, making electricity just might complement growing eggplants.

Allen Best
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