Solar panels, farming combine at new OSU research initiative
The concept of integrating farming practices and energy production, on the same ground, is what Agrivoltaics is all about.
A new research initiative coming to NWREC in 2021 will likely be one of the only place in the world to scientifically study how agriculture and energy production can work together for the benefit of all.
"We all need food and we all need energy to power the work we do — not to mention personal or home needs," said Chad Higgins, associate professor in the Biological and Ecological Engineering Department at Oregon State University.
Higgins has been an advocate for designing new and creative concepts that would allow farmers to produce their crops on lands where they can produce energy, too. The energy would power their farming operation plus provide power for local homes and businesses.
"Right now, we see the solar arrays along County Roads and along the freeway between Portland and Salem. These typical arrays are for a single-use energy production. But, what would happen if we spread the array panels further apart so we could farm the ground between them — and, then, raise the panels 9 or 10 feet off the ground, so we could drive tractors underneath them? This is what we are talking about with Agrivoltaics," Higgins said.
The importance of this new concept for energy production is based on the idea that we can utilize farm land more efficiently, create another revenue source for farmers, generate the power needs for homes and communities locally, and "close the energy loop."
"Eventually, I see Agrivoltaic systems growing food and producing energy on the same land, using the energy we produce on the farm to power the electrical farm tractors and other equipment needed by the operation, power the pumps for irrigation, power the production of fertilizers needed to feed the crops, power the greenhouses, and on and on. The opportunities will be endless."
The North Willamette Research and Extension Center has identified a five acre portion of land for this research initiative. The location of the Center in the greater Portland metropolitan area, the media market, and along the corridor from Portland to Salem, makes an ideal location for sharing this work with the community and decision makers. Also, NWREC is home to a dozen faculty research and education programs cutting across many of the Valley's most significant agricultural crops and production systems.
According to Higgins, "There will be a huge number of topics that will need to be addressed in Agrivoltaics research. At NWREC, there is a wealth of plant science expertise to draw on with our faculty. How do different crops perform in partial shade, what are the mechanical and operational considerations, what do the economics of these systems look like for the farmer — just to scratch the surface."
Since this new initiative at OSU was announced by Dean Alan Sams at last year's NWREC Harvest Dinner, work has been going forward with all of the planning, permitting, financing, and sharing of details for the coming Agrivoltaics project at NWREC and in the community.
Here's a quick list of accomplishments on the project over the past three months — plus an idea of what to expect.
• Check out the video about agrivoltaics on the NWREC website homepage. See https://extension.oregonstate.edu/nwrec/agrivoltaic-project.
• All of the land use permitting with the county and the memoranda of understanding between the university and other entities are in process and should be completed this spring.
• Financing for the solar panel infrastructure and associated installation costs has been secured with the Oregon Clean Power Cooperative. Subscriptions for purchase of green power are available to anyone in the community. Oregon State University will be the anchor subscriber with access to 40% of the nearly 750,000 kilowatts that will be produced annually.
• About 20 large trees were removed along what will become the western border of the Agrivoltaics project site since they would have shaded the solar panels. The trees were also damaged in the recent ice storm.
• Look for solar panels being installed beginning this summer.
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