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Solar PV for Massachusetts Farmers: Promise and Problems

A 16.8kW dual-use array completed in 2009 at UMass Amherst Stockbridge School of Agriculture in South Deerfield, MA. The crops directly underneath the solar panels produced yields comparable to crops in direct sunlight. These crops include tomatoes, beans, and lettuce, among others. Courtesy James Marley, Hyperion Systems, Fall 2017.

A 16.8kW dual-use array completed in 2009 at UMass Amherst Stockbridge School of Agriculture in South Deerfield, MA. The crops directly underneath the solar panels produced yields comparable to crops in direct sunlight. These crops include tomatoes, beans, and lettuce, among others. Courtesy James Marley, Hyperion Systems, Fall 2017.

By Roy Morrison

The new SMART PV (photovoltaic) solar program in Massachusetts, starting this summer, promises to bring dual-cropping to working farms, allowing farmers to produce both food and energy and sell both to customers.

The agriculture PV rules were developed as a result of test plots at the UMass Stockbridge Institute. Research, led by Professor Stephen Herbert, found that PV mounted on poles, with the lowest panel six feet above the ground and spaced four feet apart, would allow farmers to produce food and energy with only nominal reduction in agricultural productivity and little soil disturbance. The poles are essentially screwed into the ground without typical concrete foundations, according to Jake Marley of Hyperion Systems who worked on developing the pole mountain systems for Professor Herbert’s test plots.

The new dual-cropping methods mean that a megawatt of PV (1000 kilowatts) on poles or raised-table mounts can be installed on about nine acres of pasture or row crops. This is more than twice the area needed for conventional solar farms. This means producing 1.2 million kilowatt hours of energy per megawatt a year, as well as the usual food production from the land.

Dual-cropping is sustainability in action. It’s beneficial ecologically, economically, and socially. It makes local food production also mean local energy production. The farm based PV can be organized as Community Solar working with groups like Co-op Power in New England. The farmer gets a new significant income stream that helps keep the farm economically viable. Consumers can now buy reduced cost renewable energy as community solar members.

As in most innovative sustainability efforts, some problems have emerged. The most recent SMART draft guidelines on agricultural PV raise a number of significant potential problems for dual-cropping to reach full potential. First, the new regulations now state that dual-cropping rules do not apply to MA farms under Agriculture Protection (APR) rules which will still be limited to PV use for farm energy use. The purpose of solar dual-cropping was explicitly designed to maintain agricultural productivity and soil health. But the state wants to withhold dual-cropping from APR farmers who often need its help most.

Under APR, farmers receive payments for selling perpetual development rights to the state that will keep the land in agricultural production forever. The problem is, that under APR, farms can and often do fail with the farm land being sold to another farmer. I just walked a farmer’s land that was a perfect site for 750kW of solar. He had purchased a failed APR farm and was working very hard on making his farm a going concern. The PV dual-cropping system would mean around $400,000 over 20 years in lease payments for PV and substantially more, if the farmer became owner of the working PV system which the income stream from the working system would make possible. Unfortunately, blocking APR farms from dual-cropping will perpetuate a cycle that makes farmers and their families seek work away from the farm site and continue to struggle economically.

Second, are proposed new supplemental regulations go beyond rules that the dual-cropping systems approved by an agronomist to maintain farm productivity but require that not a single square foot of farm land reduces sunlight by more than 50%. If this standard were applied uniformly to farms, almost anything built by a farmer such as fence lines, feeding stations, irrigation equipment, animal sheds, and corrals could be prohibited.

It appears that suspicion about dual-cropping, and more than just second thoughts about the wisdom of dual-cropping, has taken root in the MA regulatory mind even before dual-cropping is set to begin in the summer of 2018.

Let’s make sure that a new day is really dawning for farmers producing both food and energy.

Roy Morrison is working on dual-cropping www.dual-cropping.com. His latest book is Sustainability Sutra (Select Books, NY).

Many thanks to our sponsor:

Hyperion System Logo_April 2018_VN

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