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Panels and Produce: Colorado farmers win prize for solar project

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On April 20th, the Colorado Farm and Food Alliance (CFFA) received a $50,000 prize from the National Community Solar Partnership to further farm-based renewable energy projects in the North Fork Valley, focusing on the burgeoning field of agrivoltaics — a technique which combines solar arrays and crop fields to create high efficiency, clean energy agriculture.

Also sometimes referred to as agrisolar or dual-use solar, agrivoltaics doesn’t necessarily require crop production. Photovoltaic (solar) panels can also be used on land for livestock, providing shelter for animals against the rain and sun. Additionally, panels can be placed on natural ecosystems, and while at first that may sound detrimental, the additional shade provided by the panels can theoretically increase diversity of plant life and preserve soil moisture. 

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The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) — part of the U.S. Department of Energy — published the Solar Futures Study in September of 2021, which outlined projected renewable energy needs in the coming decades to fully decarbonize the U.S. energy grid by 2050. 

At the moment, only about 22,000 acres of the country are being used for solar. In order to meet the goal set by NREL, solar may have to compose 45% of the nation’s energy grid by 2050, and for that goal to be met approximately 0.5% of the surface area of the U.S. will be used for solar power (between four and 10 million acres). While that sounds like a lot, roughly 52% of the surface area of the United States is already being used for agriculture: over 1.2 billion acres. Combining agriculture with solar energy may prove a space-effective strategy for decarbonizing the United States in the decades to come.

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The prize was received from phase one of the Community Power Accelerator (CPA) initiative, a multi-phased project led by the Department of Energy designed to spur development of community-owned, local-scale solar and renewable energy projects. With a total prize pool of $10 million for renewable projects from Boston to Hawaii, CPA has multiple phases designed to orient these projects towards expansion and train their leaders on solar development over the course of a year. 

Steps in each phase include designing a pitch presentation for investors and receiving consultation on possible hiccups that come with small-scale renewable energy projects. Having won the prize for phase 1, CFFA is eligible to win even more funding as the program continues.

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CFFA, based in Paonia, originally coalesced around a community of western Colorado ranchers, food producers and agricultural workers who organized against oil and gas sales in the North Fork Valley. Since then, CFFA has expanded to strengthen local food systems and support all sorts of local climate action projects with the aim of providing clean, wholesome food statewide. The award, however, is for a collaboration between CFFA and a small team of North Fork community leaders. 

“Our goal is to promote rural climate leadership and to show that the clean energy transition can support agriculture, boost local enterprise, and work toward greater energy equity,” said Pete Kolbenschlag, director of CFFA.

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Currently, the largest commercially active agrivoltaic site in the nation is located in Longmont, but CFFA aims to bring this technology to Delta County. Right now, the team is primarily focused on developing an agrivoltaic project at Thistle Whistle farms in Hotchkiss. Spread across two acres, the array would fully accommodate agriculture and is expected to produce 0.5 megawatts (MW) of clean energy. 

“This project will give a handful of farms, like this one, and a few food-related businesses that use our produce, a way of accessing cleaner power, while benefiting our farm by giving us more gentle growing conditions under the panels to grow some of our crops,” said Mark Waltermire, owner of Thistle Whistle. “And we can set the stage for similar projects in areas around the valley that can help other producers.”

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The team is also considering two other projects, one being a larger farm-based agrivoltaic project, but at the moment Thistle Whistle is the primary focus. 

“The idea of the prize is to help consider projects thoroughly, and where appropriate move forward with community solar projects,” stated Kolbenschlag. However, the hope is to eventually be able to generate at least one MW of energy across all three potential systems. 

In addition, CFFA plans to perform research in partnership with the Colorado State University Western Colorado Research Center. The research will look into what crops thrive the most in an agrivoltaic system, and how these crops respond to co-location with solar panels. 

“We have an exceptional team and an exceptional project,” said Kolbenschlag. “We think this can be a model for rural climate action and community resilience.”

Tags: #agrivoltaics #Colorado Farm and Food Alliance #Thistle Whistle Farms
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