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(Alaska Center for Energy & Power intern Cole Sudkamp-Walker, works on a solar panel at the center’s Bifacial solar test site on the UAF Experimental Farm. Photo by Jeff Fisher.)
Later this year, Alaska’s largest to-date solar installation plans to start producing power. But below the panels will be native cranberries and blueberries, hay and even spinach.
The project, in Houston, Alaska, about an hour north of Anchorage, will be both a commercial solar installation and a research project. Chris Pike, of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and his fellow researchers are using the array — and a Department of Energy grant — to study the agrivoltaic potential of Alaskan solar - i.e. what happens when you put crops and solar on the same piece of land.
Pike says most of the existing research of combining the two has focused on the southwest, in desert climates where studies are usually focused on cooling down crops and maintaining soil moisture.
I called him up to hear more about this upcoming study and what the solar industry looks like in the far north. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
How did this project get started?
We’ve been actually looking at opportunities to study agrivoltaics for a couple of years and then the DOE funding opportunity came out. It was a good opportunity to draw in expertise from the university and from private farmers in town and also from private solar developers. The conversation that we’re having indicates everybody’s interested in it, but no one’s willing to dip their toe in or to do a big project without having data to support it.
We’re really interested in how it’s going to do in northern agricultural climates from both a farming perspective, and from a solar energy generation perspective. We were really fortunate to have renewable IPP, which is an Alaska-based solar developer, come to us and say, Hey, we’re interested in this as well. The timing lined up really well with this proposal.
What’s the solar industry like in Alaska? We are probably five to 10 years behind where a lot of the rest of the country is. I think there’s a number of reasons for that. When you think of solar, you don’t think of Alaska, everybody always imagines it being dark up here all the time, but the reality is we have probably about two months that are pretty dark, but then the rest of the year is pretty normal, and during the summer, you have periods of very long days.
That being said, Alaska does not have the same solar resource that you might get in like California or Arizona or New Mexico. It wasn’t the first choice of solar developers. But there is a net metering regulation, and people have been installing solar on the rooftops pretty aggressively since about 2016.
For larger utility scale installations, those are just getting going. This project will be the largest in the state when it gets constructed (TKB Note: This project is almost 9 MW of capacity. In comparison, Texas’ largest solar installation is nearly 350 MW). But also, every utility along with what we call the railbelt (the part of the Alaska grid that’s interconnected) is in some kind of conversation with solar developers for potential projects right now. Some of them are quite large.
In the next five years, we’ll see a lot more solar on the Alaskan grid, due to a combination of factors, Alaska has pretty high cost of power so that allows the developers to a little bit more latitude in their negotiations for rates. Land is more available here than what you would see in lower 48, but it there’s a lot less of both transmission and road infrastructure. Just because you find a nice big piece of land and it’s easy to acquire or easy to lease, doesn’t mean you’re going to have a road to that piece of land or you’re gonna have transmission that serves that area.
There’s also, like in most areas of country, a lot of focus on finding alternatives to traditional fossil generation. On the rail belt of Alaska, a majority of the electricity generation comes from natural gas. All that natural gas comes from Cook Inlet, which is just right next to Anchorage. However, the main supplier of that gas has said that they may not be able to guarantee the contracts for the next round of negotiations, just because it’s a very old field. (TKB note: Alaska has a huge gas field further north, far away from the more populated areas of the state— but proposal to build a 800-mile pipeline generally involves more of a focus on LNG export than local demand.)
What’s different about Alaska agriculture and how will that change what you study?
We have a very short but intense growing season. Usually it runs from the end of May, through the beginning of September. During that time period, you have these long days, as much as 20 hours of [sunlight] depending on where in the state you are. And due to climate change, our growing season is expanding: I think there’s like 10 additional frost free days on average than there used to be.
There’s a lot of things that grow well up here, there’s also things that don’t grow well. It’s hard to grow spinach because our photo periods are so long. So the question is, can we actually take advantage of some of the increased shading from a solar array and have increased production of things like spinach. We plan to test a couple of different [vegetable] crops.
The area where the array is being installed, already has native cranberries and blueberries growing there. which is widespread in a lot of areas of Alaska. Rather than scraping all that existing vegetation off, Renewable IPP is basically cutting anything that’s taller than say, knee height, but leaving that under vegetation. So we’ll be studying how those existing berries are growing around the array. These berries are actually a big source of subsistence harvest to Alaskans, especially indigenous Alaskans.
We’ll be looking at forage crops for animals. We won’t actually have animals in between the arrays but we’ll be looking how how grass and hay grows. From a farming perspective, that probably holds the most immediate potential.
Is the idea to make it a commercial farm, or just have additional benefits for the land?
In order to make agrivoltaics work and be repeated, you have to make it economically attractive for the solar developer and the farmer. That means things like making sure the solar designs that we’re using are not super capital intensive, and the farmers are going to have increased revenue coming off of this land and still be able to produce these agricultural products. One of the things that we’re actually really excited about doing a lot of that economic analysis.
Your proposal specifically called out potential agrivoltaic uses for Native Alaskan populations. Do you have specific communities or projects in mind? There are farms that are run by tribes close to where this project is taking place, and we look forward to partnering with them. One of the first things we’re going to do is to complete a stakeholder needs assessment, and we see tribes and indigenous communities as a big part of that There’s a number of both farms and solar arrays that are that are being constructed in the western part of the state, which is a predominantly indigenous area, so we’ll be reaching out to them, to a lot of contacts in those areas and those villages. Just making sure that those folks are included in this research and that their their input is taken into account.
(An aerial view of ACEP’s Bifacial solar test site located on the university’s experimental farm. Photo by Amanda Byrd)
Among the things I learned from a wave of Jimmy Carter stories following the former president’s decision to enter hospice: he’s currently a solar farmer.
Carter put solar panels on the White House decades before it was a widely accepted form of energy, but his family’s famous peanut farm is now the site of a solar array that doubles as agrivoltaics research project
A solar farm of more than 3,800 panels now sits on a seven-acre research site in Plains, Georgia, where former President Jimmy Carter’s family used to grow peanuts and soybeans. The Plains solar site now feeds into Georgia Power’s grid, providing power to about half of the town’s residents.
You can read more about the site here.