An 80-megawatt solar project in Western Colorado gets OK after modifications to agrivoltaics. A legislative bill likely to return in Colorado’s 2023 session would have allocated funds for studying agrivoltaics applications.
Enthusiasm for integrating solar with agriculture, a concept called agrivoltaics, seems to be on the rise in the wake of an approval for an 80-megawatt solar project near Delta.
And there likely will be a bill before legislators that would seek to provide a foundation for even more agrivoltaics, particularly in the San Luis Valley, a place rich with solar potential but troubled by water supply challenges.
Delta County commissioners unanimously approved the project proposed by Delta-Montrose Electric Association and its partners after rejecting a similar proposal several months before.
Sheep are to be grazed on the 383 acres of Garnet Mesa Solar Project. The mesa has been of marginal agricultural production. The plan approved by the county commissioners has a different irrigation plan than the one that was defeated in a 2-to-1 vote during late winter. The commissioners had cited loss of agriculture and said the solar farm was incompatible with existing uses.
See March 6,2022 story in Big Pivots: “Delta County’s strange case of no.”
What changed? As reported in Big Pivots in July, the new plans submitted by solar developer, Citra Power, called for three different irrigation techniques instead of flood irrigation, boosting the cost of the project to $1.5 million.
“Sprinklers will be mounted below the solar panels along the supporting structures,” explained Matthew Kosakowski, project manager for Citra Power. “Gated pipes will be strategically located between solar rows, and drip heads will be deployed as needed in areas requiring additional coverage.”
The project team that had come up with this revamped irrigation plan had consulted with local livestock agents, the Colorado State University Extension Service, and local irrigation engineers, he said. Their feedback was consistent. See: “New plans for Delta-Montrose solar.”
Sheep grazing was part of the plan all along, but the revised plans looked more solid. Les Owen from the Colorado Department of Agriculture emphasized the compatibility in an interview with Eric Peterson in a story for Engineering News.
“With sheep grazing, (the solar panels) don’t have to be extremely high, and of course (they) use the shade and are able to graze,” he said. The solar developer doesn’t have to manage the vegetation. The sheep do it for him, so it’s kind of a win-win there.”
Growing crops is a more difficult proposition, although it has been done during the last two summers at Jack’s Solar Garden. This, however, is a very, very small operation. How about at scale? And is there potential applicability in some parts of Colorado – say the San Luis Valley or the Republican River Basin?
Jordan Macknick of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory told Engineering News’s Peterson that pollinator habitat and sheep grazing have the two top agriculture uses he has seen in the 300 agrivoltaic sites across the United States that he monitors as part of NREL’s Inspire (Innovative Solar Practices Integrated with Rural Economics and Ecosystems) project. In both cases, he said, solar developers don’t have to do many changes in the infrastructure or the design of the system.
How about solar panels associated with cattle pastures? There are 30 million cows in the United States vs. 5 million sheep. It’s a harder proposition, though.
“Cow-proofing solar panels is a heck of a lot more expensive than sheep-proofing,” said the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Owen. “You’d have to make (the panels) a lot taller plus you’d have to make them a heck of a lot stouter because cows like to rub against stuff. They can be a bit destructive.”
Now, about row crops. There’s opportunity there. Macknick has cited an experiment that showed double the yields and 30% less water consumption at a test in Arizona. “We’re looking at melons, we’re looking at beans, we’re looking at over 15 crop types right now,” he said.
Colorado State Sen. Chris Hansen promises to return to the Legislature next January with “an even-better” version of SB22-138, a big suitcase of a bill loaded with interesting ways to reduce emissions and improve air quality that didn’t quite get across the finish line in the last session.
Two of the 12 sections dealt with agrivoltaics. Most important was a proposal to appropriate $1.8 million annually through 2027 for research, including the wildlife impacts of agrivoltaics. The activities allowed under agrivoltaics would include animal husbandry, cover cropping for soil health, and carbon sequestration.
In a session on Sunday with law students at the University of Denver, Hansen said he intended to bring back provisions of this bill. He also talked about the value of integrating solar panels with water, such as across canals, to reduce evaporation. It could reduce evaporation by about 30%, he said.
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