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A Longmont farm wants to teach people how to grow food under solar panels

Jack’s Solar Garden will use $40,000 from the Boulder County Sustainability Tax to fund educational initiatives

May 26, 2021 - Byron Kominek, owner of Jack’s Solar Garden, tills the soil at the farm in Longmont, Colo. Jack’s Solar Garden is a 1.2-MW, five-acre community solar farm and is the largest agrivoltaic research project in the U.S. The solar project was designed and built by Namasté Solar. (Photo by Werner Slocum, NREL)
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Time for a pop quiz: What’s the definition of agrivoltaics?

For readers new to the intersection of farming and green energy, agrivoltaic is the word used to describe the use of land for both agriculture and solar photovoltaic power. And since 2020, Byron Kominek has been trying to make the case that farming for clean energy and for crops aren’t mutually exclusive pursuits.

This year, Kominek’s Jack’s Solar Garden got a $40,000 jolt from Boulder County’s Sustainable Food and Agriculture Fund, a pot of money salted by a 2016 ballot initiative allowing the county to direct some sales tax money to environmentally conscious infrastructure and programs. Roughly $405,000 makes up this year’s budget for large projects and smaller requests.

The money will be used to support the nonprofit Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Center, which operates at Jack’s Solar Garden and is believed to be the nation’s largest agrivoltaic demonstration project. The farm south of Longmont has been in Kominek’s family since 1972 and is named for his grandfather, Jack Stingerie, who grew wheat and hay there. In addition to the solar garden and nonprofit, Kominek collaborates with the Denver-based urban farm nonprofit Sprout City Farms.

The Sun spoke to Kominek about what he’s trying to teach people with the financial help from Boulder County. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Q: What will this grant allow you to do that wasn’t possible before?

Kominek: Sprout City Farms has requested having a new shed, having various implements for their walk-behind tractor and a handful of other pieces of equipment. Then on our nonprofit side for the Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Center, we’ll be using those funds to help out with providing a better educational experience for folks out on-site. So what we’re doing is putting up interpretive panels this season, with pretty pictures and little explanations for when folks are coming out to our land. I’m working with a Ph.D. student from Colorado State University that wants to engage more farmers and landowners and agrivoltaics with what’s going on out here and see if they’re of interest. So some of the funds will go toward that. It’s nice and fancy to hear that you can grow food underneath a solar panel, but how much money does it cost? How much revenue do they get from it?

Q: What is the intention behind the learning center?

Kominek: What we want to do with the nonprofit is to teach people about land stewardship. There’s the potential for millions of acres of land to go underneath solar panels in the coming decades, and all that land does not need to be wasted. They don’t need to bulldoze it, they don’t need to denude it, they don’t need to leave it compacted bare dirt with nothing but weeds growing in that space. We want to show our community that they can do more with their plants. That there are other opportunities, as long as people take the time to be creative, think through it and are able to elevate the panels to provide more space for people to work underneath those panels, or for livestock to be underneath those panels, or for vegetation to grow taller.

September 1, 2021 – Farmer Brittany Staie (left) and farmer Kailey Littlehorn harvest beans, just one of the many types of produce grown at the farm. (Photo by Werner Slocum, NREL)

Q: Are students the target audience for the learning center?

Kominek: They’re one of our three pillars. So high school students is one of them. The second one is community members. And the third one is policymakers, people that can actually put into law different means for either regulating how solar arrays go in or helping to make those connections between farms and solar developers easier so that folks can do agrivoltaic.

Q: Are there people who are reluctant to have these big solar panels in their communities? What are the concerns you’ve faced through the process?

Kominek: I’ve heard those concerns. And at times I have similar concerns, depending on what people are going to do with the land. If someone is going to build a solar array by destroying the land beneath the panels, I would be against that myself. I want to see solar arrays being developed with concern for the land, for the environment around it, and if done well, you can produce clean energy above ground and sequester carbon and water below ground. I think those are all win-wins for helping to keep solar panels cooler with vegetation around it that transpire and create humidity, and the panels create shade that can reduce evaporation and keep that water in the ground. It’s all pluses, it’s just getting people on board with taking that extra time and effort to figure it out.

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Q: You had said earlier that you’re working with a CSU student to figure out the finances. What are the financial impacts, or even advantages, of trying to do agrivoltaic farming?

Kominek: If there’s a farm owner, landowner that is interested in agrivoltaic, first they can approach different solar developers that might want to lease the land from them. They can get payments between $600 to 2,000 per acre per year, kind of depending on where they are. So one, you get that lease payment. Two, the solar company is going to probably be paying somebody to deal with vegetation, because they don’t want to have vegetation shading in their panels. So then that could be another revenue stream for the landowner to be able to say, “You know what, I’ll manage that land, I’ll take care of the vegetation so none of it shade your solar panels.” Boom, now you have two revenue streams for that person. And then the third one would be if researchers here at Jack’s Solar Garden or in other parts of the country or world can show that different types of crops grow well in different ways within a solar array, then a farmer or a landowner or a gardener, they can cultivate different types of crops — annuals, or perennials or whatever works for them or having animals within a system.

Q: We wrote about a Western Slope county rejecting a solar project. I’m seeing the lone commissioner to support the project had said the grid is under stress and if we don’t figure out some new sources, we’re going to be facing a Texas-type problem, like how the Texas electric grid was hit by the major freeze in the winter of 2021. I’m curious what solar and specifically agrivoltaic can do to try to help prevent something like what happened in Texas from happening here.

Kominek: Having a decentralized energy system helps with redundancy. If there are issues in one part of the grid, like, if you only have one power station for an entire country, and that station goes down, then you’re blacked out across the entire country. Whereas if you have lots of solar power plants or other types of energy producing areas, then that can help out if one of them shuts down. Then it’s only a small segment of a community that loses power. So by having solar on farmlands, it can help provide power within the areas that abut that farmland.

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Q: Is there anything else that I haven’t asked you about that you think would be helpful for people to know?

Kominek: Yeah, that people can come out here! They can sign up on tours through our website.


CORRECTION: This story was updated April 6, 2022, at 9:15 a.m. to clarify that the Boulder County sustainability tax grant will go to Jack’s Solar Garden and will be used to support the work of the nonprofit Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Center.


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