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Dormant plants at Jack’s Solar Farm near Longmont grow in microclimates created by the shade of solar panels that also direct rain toward plants that need more moisture. (Tyler Hickman, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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At sites around the country, once-verdant fields, farms and forests are reduced to gravel lots to make way for utility-scale solar plants. At some, carefully trimmed Kentucky bluegrass is permitted to grow beneath the panels.

Just off Hover Road south of Longmont, one solar project breaks this mold. Savory herbs, berry bushes, veggies and hay flourish between rows of elevated photovoltaic panels. Jack’s Solar Garden is the largest commercially active research facility in the United States for “agrivoltaics,” a land-use model that combines agriculture with solar power. In just a few acres, the site grows produce for a local farm, produces enough electricity to power 300 homes and hosts researchers from three separate institutions. The project preserves the tradition of the land, which is a third-generation hay operation. At the same time, it is well-positioned for a future in which Colorado’s energy needs are increasingly met by renewable sources.

The idea behind agrivoltaics is simple: use the “empty” space beneath solar panels to grow stuff. However, the concept is still young. Agrivoltaic farms and research sites are owned and operated by a select few advocates around the country. During this legislative session, two Colorado senators plan to introduce a bill that could position the state as a leader in agrivoltaics research.

It’s not the first time the topic has been brought to the statehouse. In 2021, Senate Democrats passed Senate Bill 235, providing $3 million of funding for Advancing Colorado’s Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency program. Of this, a small portion was allocated to purchasing equipment for agrivoltaic operations. 

“We’re not the first state to recognize agrivoltaics, but we’re the first state to establish agrivoltaics in statute, and also funding from state funds,” said Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, the bill’s prime sponsor. 

Jaquez Lewis credits Jack’s Solar Garden for her interest in agrivoltaics. After touring the facility, located within her district and just a 10-minute drive from her home, she was hooked.

A year later, agrivoltaics appeared at the Capitol once again. Senate Bill 22-138, sponsored by Denver Democrat Chris Hansen, did not fare as well as its predecessor. Five years of funding for agrivoltaics research was proposed with a hodgepodge of policies intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado. House Republicans mounted a last-second filibuster, killing the legislation.

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Up until now, every bill concerning funding for agrivoltaics has been primarily sponsored by Democrats. In 2023, a Republican lawmaker from Alamosa intends to change that. Sen. Cleave Simpson first became interested in agrivoltaics as a potential solution to the issues that his family faced on their 800-acre alfalfa farm. Years of water scarcity had made the operation financially tenuous. 

“I was trying to figure out how to make my farm self-sufficient in a lot of respects — energy, soil health and water,” Simpson said. “All of these things kind of come together in this conversation around agrivoltaics.”

Simpson predicts that his constituents will share his interest in the new technology. Over the past two decades, he has seen neighboring farms and ranches struggle to stay afloat. 

“If the next 20 years look like the last 20 years from a water supply perspective, there’s probably 100,000 acres in the valley that doesn’t have an adequate water supply,” he said. “The entire community’s economy, culture and community is built around irrigated agriculture and I just see this freight train coming down the track at it. I’m routinely looking for solutions.”

At its core, agrivoltaics is a marriage of traditional land use with forward-looking infrastructure. Instead of razing crops to make way for power production, landowners may be able to adapt time-honored agriculturale operations to incorporate a second revenue source. 

“Economics is certainly the biggest driving factor,” Simpson said. “I wouldn’t want to risk the economic viability of my family farm and my son’s future and my grandson’s future.”

On Tuesday, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis reiterated his goal for Colorado to generate 100% of its electricity through renewables by 2040 in his fifth annual State of the State address. The goal is part of a broader effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado. Last year, major utilities, including Xcel Energy, submitted clean energy plans to the state that detailed how they would contribute to the transition. 

The entire community’s economy, culture and community is built around irrigated agriculture and I just see this freight train coming down the track at it.

— State Sen. Cleave Simpson, Republican lawmaker from Alamosa

Though Simpson is not an outspoken climate advocate, he sees the writing on the wall. Renewables are expanding in Colorado, and he wants them to benefit farmers when they do.

“If I can be in a space to help drive the conversation and protect ag, I’d much rather be in that space than trying to reverse policy,” Simpson said. “In this position, I have a little more control over what it ends up looking like.”

In the coming legislative session, Simpson plans to introduce a stand-alone bill that creates a grant program for agrivoltaic projects overseen by the newly formed Agriculture Drought and Climate Resilience office. According to a draft, the grants will be available to “new or ongoing demonstration(s) or research project(s) as a means to study the use of agrivoltaics in the state.” It will be the first state law in the country to provide funding for agrivoltaics research, though Massachusetts passed a law funding agrivoltaic generation projects in 2018.

Hansen will co-sponsor the legislation, and some of the language will be reused from Senate Bill 22-138. This time around, they are optimistic the bill will pass. 

“Sometimes, with new concepts, people can have some reservations and hesitation,” Simpson said. “If Senator Hansen and I are working on it together, it’ll alleviate potential apprehensions on both sides of the aisle.”

A man stands between solar panels and a row of plants.
Byron Kominek picks dried seed pods off of a clary sage plant at Jack’s Solar Farm in Longmont on Dec. 8, 2022. (Tyler Hickman, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Microclimates

For a farmer, the potential value of an agrivoltaic project is twofold. First, there is solar power itself, which the farm can use to power its operations or generate revenue through a lease agreement from a solar developer. The second potential benefit is harder to quantify.

As the sun moves across the sky, the panels at Jack’s Solar Garden track its course along a single axis. Below them, a shadow moves across the earth and rainwater is deposited along each panel’s downward edge. Before the farm became a solar garden, every square foot received approximately the same amount of sunlight and moisture. Now, the field is broken up into an array of “microclimates.”

This concept is central to the purported benefits of agrivoltaics. Diverse conditions within the same plot of land increase the opportunities to grow diverse crops. In pasture land, agrivoltaic installations might promote more diverse plants, insect pollinators and soil microbiota — essential elements for long-term sustainability.

“For landowners out here, if you can increase productivity at all — great. If you can keep productivity the same — great, because you’re creating energy too,” Colorado State University doctoral student and agrivoltaics researcher Matt Sturchio said. “If you can slightly reduce productivity, but increase biodiversity and also resilience to climate extremes like drought and heat waves — win-win again, right?”

A sign reads "Buffaloberry" amid now dead plants.
A man sits at a table while pointing to pieces of paper.

LEFT: Crops grown at Jack’s Solar Garden include native buffaloberries, which fix nitrogen in the soil. The berries are edible, used in jams and in herbal remedies. RIGHT: It took Jack’s Solar Garden founder Byron Kominek three years to convince Boulder County officials to let him build the solar array that now supplies enough electricity to power 300 homes. Now that crops are grown under the panels, the garden also functions as the nation’s largest agrivoltaics research project. (Tyler Hickman, Special to The Colorado Sun)

TOP: Crops grown at Jack’s Solar Garden include native buffaloberries, which fix nitrogen in the soil. The berries are edible, used in jams and in herbal remedies. BOTTOM: It took Jack’s Solar Garden founder Byron Kominek three years to convince Boulder County officials to let him build the solar array that now supplies enough electricity to power 300 homes. Now that crops are grown under the panels, the garden also functions as the nation’s largest agrivoltaics research project. (Tyler Hickman, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The idea that solar panels might help crops survive drought is a seductive concept in the arid farmlands throughout Colorado and the desert Southwest. Water is always in short supply, and the evidence is mounting that agrivoltaic operations might help. A 2019 study led by University of Arizona researcher Greg Barron-Gafford found that jalapeños and tomatoes used irrigation water more efficiently under the protective shade of photovoltaic panels at a field site outside of Tucson. At Jack’s solar garden, partner organization Sprout City Farms grows vegetables, herbs and berries under the shade of panels. 

Researchers like Sturchio hope that similar benefits could play out in native grasslands, hay fields and pastures. In addition to shading plants, the panels could provide livestock refuge from the midday sun. 

Soon, a private-sector project will put the theory to the test. In August, Delta County commissioners approved the Garnet Mesa Solar Project, which will pair 80 megawatts of solar capacity with 1,000 local sheep. When completed, it will be more than 60 times bigger than Jack’s Solar Garden, taking over the title of the state’s largest agrivolatic facility.

Scaling up

Alexis Pascaris, the founding director of AgriSolar Consulting, has spent countless hours interviewing farmers about their opinions on agrivoltaics. In general, they fall into two camps.

“It’s either ‘stay off my farmland’ or ‘that’s awesome, how can I leverage those benefits to support my farm and my production?’” she said. The farmers who are interested want to know one thing. “They value social and environmental attributes, but, at the end of the day, it’s got to pencil financially.”

This rationale was at the heart of the impetus for Jack’s Solar Garden. In 2016, Byron Kominek moved onto the family farm after a five-year stint as a U.S. diplomat in southern Africa. At the time, the farm produced hay. But the margins on the crop were scant compared to when Kominek’s grandfather, Jack, ran the operation in the 1970s and ’80s. 

Farm workers lean over to harvest beans from one of many lush rows of plants under solar panels.
Sprout City Farms workers harvest beans at Jack’s Solar Garden. (Werner Slocum, NREL)

“Haying was interesting, but it didn’t make anything for money,” Kominek said. “And we were getting less and less water every year for irrigating that really thirsty bromegrass.”

When Kominek went to the Boulder County Land Use Department to ask if he could build a solar array on the property, they shot him down. He could run a Christmas tree farm or an equestrian center, but they would not permit him solar panels. No matter what was growing underneath the panels, the project was seen as a power plant.

Kominek is an unusually persistent person. Over the course of three years, he convinced county officials to let him build Jack’s Solar Garden and sold shares of the operation to local homeowners. Now, the revenue from the electricity produced on the farm slowly chips away at the bank loan that funded construction, and Kominek has become a prominent advocate on the issue.

To many, Jack’s Solar Garden is a model for what is possible with agrivoltaics. Kominek hopes it is a catalyst for something larger. “Are we just going to keep dinking around with projects the size of mine, or are we actually going to start installing 10 megawatt, 50 megawatt, 100 plus megawatt systems that are aimed at agrivoltaics?” he said.

Other agrivoltaic advocates agree. For Sturchio, a large-scale project paired with state funding could underwrite his research on an unprecedented scale. 

“How many sites are built for agrivoltaics, and how many have kept the land intact? Not many,” he said. “More money is important for building larger designs.”

They value social and environmental attributes, but, at the end of the day, it’s got to pencil financially.

— Alexis Pascaris, the founding director of AgriSolar Consulting

Simpson hopes that large-scale agrivoltaics projects might provide an example for farmers like his constituents in the San Luis Valley. “I toured Jack’s Solar Garden last summer and spent time with Byron. It’s pretty impressive to see what he’s accomplished on, from my perspective, a small scale,” he said. “I need to be able to do it on 120 or 160 acres at a time and, you know, do it 50 times, or 100 times.”

Two things stand in the way of grand visions for large-scale agrivoltaic projects. The first is physical. Large-scale renewable energy projects require high-capacity transmission lines. Xcel’s Power Pathway project will bring this type of infrastructure to much of Eastern Colorado over the next few years, but places like the San Luis Valley lag behind.

Water pipes line rows of dirt between solar panels.
Drip irrigation lines supplement natural water at Jack’s Solar Garden. (Tyler Hickman, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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“The entire supply for the San Luis Valley comes from two lines that generate north of the valley and come over Poncha Pass,” Simpson said. 

Valley lawmakers have long discussed a second line into the valley from the east, but no concrete plans are in place to expand transmission infrastructure. For now, new renewable projects are limited by capacity.

The second obstacle is financial. Colorado’s general fund will be stretched thin over the next year as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) limit on state revenue lags behind inflation. Even if Simpson and Hansen’s bill passes, it may not be funded for another year.

“It’s really challenging this year to try to appropriate any dollars for it,” Simpson said. “We can at least get the statutory authority.”

Meanwhile, six Department of Energy-funded projects in other states will test the viability of utility-scale agrivoltaics in various climates and land-use categories. As of now, Jack’s Solar Garden has established Colorado as a leader in the field. If the state wants to maintain that status, it will need to scale up.

Gabe Allen

Gabe Allen is an journalism master's candidate at CU Boulder with a passion for science and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Astronomy Magazine, Wyofile and Bandwagon Magazine. Before coming to Colorado, he won press awards in feature writing and entertainment...

Tyler Hickman

Tyler Hickman is a Journalism Masters student at CU Boulder from Connecticut. After working in the nonprofit space and moonlighting as an opinionated baseball writer, he’s found a passion for reporting on food and agriculture.