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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Renewable Energy for Massachusetts Farmers

Farms in the Pioneer Valley. Wikipedia.

George Harvey

On April 11, 2016, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) into law. It will provide incentives for 1,600 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaic installations under a rather complicated scheme. It was much awaited and finally went into effect on November 26, 2018.

One of the complexities of the SMART program is that incentives are awarded for systems in blocks of 400MW. The individual projects within the blocks can range up to five MW. Incentives range from 15.6 cents to 39.1 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). The incentives are reduced from one block to the next, as they fill up and vary according to the utility in the area. Clearly, anyone developing a solar system has to plan carefully.

Recognizing the importance of local agriculture and the special needs of farmers, there is a special incentive for them. In addition to the basic incentive, farmers can get a bonus of 6 cents per kWh for electricity from a solar system that is mounted in such a way that agriculture can still be practiced below the panels.

Farming beneath solar panels is not new. A very nice picture of sheep grazing in a solar system appeared in the article, “Upper Valley Aquatic Center is Swimming in Solar,” which appeared in Green Energy Times in October of 2017 (bit.ly/GET-aquatic-center). We have been told that some traditional strains of grazing grass grow just as well in the partial shade of solar panels as they do in full sun, so there is nothing lost to a farmer using such grains.

Other crops can also be grown below the panels. Bees, which can be kept below the panels, provide an income to the farmer who keeps them, but they are valuable pollinators for farms and gardens for miles around. Various types of fowl, herbs, and shade-tolerant vegetables are other potential crops. In Germany, hay has been grown successfully under panels mounted high enough for ordinary farm equipment to operate below them. Other crops we have seen range from fish, under floating systems, to mushrooms. Just about every farm has someplace where solar panels can be mounted.

There are other state programs that can benefit Massachusetts farmers. One has special incentives for energy efficiency. Standard awards going to $30,000 are there to help with projects. We have been told that in special cases, such as for net-zero buildings, awards can go as high as $75,000.

Another initiative for Massachusetts farmers is the Organics-to-Energy program of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. This has a special focus on using waste from farms and sewage treatment plants to fuel anaerobic digesters (AD), reactors that generate gas similar to natural gas for fuel. In some cases, heat from the reactors can be captured for use in neighboring buildings.

Using AD as a potential source of power is important for a number of reasons. The waste has to be treated for the sake of public safety. The electricity generated can cover the cost of treating the waste, and a side product is compost. Because of its importance, the Organics-to-Energy program offers technical assistance and various types of help for funding. One recent grant from the program put $500,000 into an AD that is expected to generate 7,000 MWh per year.

You can learn about the SMART program at bit.ly/MA-smart. Search the page for “agriculture” for relevant information. Another good site to visit is Massachusetts Farm Energy Program, at massfarmenergy.com. The state’s Anaerobic Digestion & Organics Diversion can be found at bit.ly/MA-AD.

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