Led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office, Innovative Solar Practices Integrated with Rural Economies and Ecosystems (InSPIRE) has completed its second, three-year phase of research into the synergies between solar energy and agriculture.
It is hard to find a flock of sheep nestled under an array of solar panels. Lexie Hain, a farmer in the Finger Lakes region of New York and director of agrivoltaics for Lightsource bp, grazes sheep underneath solar photovoltaic (PV) installations. Her flocks keep the plants under the rows of PV panels trimmed, saving the installation’s owner the cost of mowing. And Hain’s sheep get to eat for free (and may even be paid for it). This concept—of using PV installations to both create renewable energy and provide space for local agriculture or native habitats—is known as “agrivoltaics.”
“Sheep are late risers. You won’t hear them when you enter the site for an early morning walk. What you hear first are insects: crickets, little frogs. It feels alive to you,” says Hain. “The flock loves to lie under the panels, so finding them often involves an element of surprise.”
Both solar developers and those in the local community who care for the land – whether as farmland, rangeland or native habitats – can benefit from agrivoltaics. And when all sides understand how they can benefit each other, low-impact solar development becomes easier.
In its first phase, InSPIRE tried to quantify the benefits of agrivoltaics and record some early best practices in the emerging field. The project adopts a big-tent approach to agrivoltaics, welcoming any dual use of solar-occupied land that provides ecological or agricultural benefits. That could mean grazing cattle or sheep, growing crops, cultivating pollinator-friendly native plants, or providing ecosystem services and restoring degraded soil.
For InSPIRE’s second phase, NREL and dozens of partnering organizations carried out agrivoltaics field research across the nation to study what makes an agrivoltaics project successful.
“Through our work, which spans multiple regions, configurations, and agricultural activities, we’ve seen so many initial promising results,” states Jordan Macknick, NREL’s lead energy-water-land analyst and principal investigator for the InSPIRE project. “Now, our challenge is to figure out how to scale up and replicate these successes.”