By Lisa DeMarco, principal consultant & founder, Climate Tech Marketing
From increasing crop production and solar panel efficiency, to providing new land prospects in the face of dwindling solar project sites, to creating a sustainable, long-term food supply, there are myriad reasons why agrivoltaics, or the colocation of solar generating facilities with productive agricultural land, has grown rapidly from about 5 MW of installed solar capacity in 2012 to nearly 3 GW in 2020. In recent years, CS Energy, a national engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) firm, Navisun LLC, a solar independent power producer, and BlueWave Solar, a solar developer, have collaborated to develop, finance and build an innovative agrivoltaic project in Rockport, Maine, that is set to advance the clean energy industry while supporting local farmers.
In Summer 2021, the companies completed this award-winning, first-of-its-kind dual-use solar project and pilot program located on a blueberry farm in Maine. While simultaneously ensuring the execution of this solar project, the companies leveraged the expertise of ecologists and also developed a strong partnership with a leading research institution, the University of Maine. BlueWave worked closely with longtime partners, CS Energy and Navisun throughout each aspect of this ground-breaking project to both further the industry’s agrivoltaic knowledge base as well as help grow local economies.
Pioneering an agrivoltaic pilot program at Maine blueberry farm with the University of Maine
Having collaborated with BlueWave Solar for over a decade, Navisun’s leadership team began working alongside the company, as well as the University of Maine, on an innovative agrivoltaic pilot program and 4.2-MW community solar project located on a blueberry farm in Rockport, Maine, last year – the first program of its kind in the state. Thirty-eight U.S. states currently grow blueberries and a recent study found that blueberries generate more than $4.7 billion in annual economic activity, with wild blueberries contributing $250 million annually to Maine’s economy specifically. By supporting research institution partners and the design and construction teams, analyzing methods for constructing and operating solar energy systems co-located with blueberry farms, Navisun, BlueWave Solar and CS Energy are not only breaking down dual-use knowledge barriers for the solar industry, but are also helping to protect farmers’ livelihoods and provide new income streams.
Overcoming dual-use construction challenges
Given that wild blueberries often take ten to twelve years to grow, research around proper construction and harvesting methods in dual-use scenarios is necessary for crop protection. Half of this 10-acre project is devoted to studying optimal solar construction techniques and various ways for farmers to effectively harvest existing blueberry farms co-located with solar arrays. Portions of the five acres have been divided into three distinct areas to test varying tiers of defined construction procedures to determine the effects of each approach, which have vastly differing labor requirements and construction costs. CS Energy, Navisun and BlueWave, together with the University of Maine, developed and implemented individual construction plans for each of the control areas.
“We’re pleased to be working alongside the University of Maine as well as industry leaders like Navisun and BlueWave Solar on this innovative project that will help promote the growth of the agrivoltaics market as well as support local farmers,” said Chris Ichter, director of business development at CS Energy.
In the most cautious construction control area, the team developed methodologies to limit crop damage. As part of this collaborative process, CS Energy’s team invested in nylon landscaping mats to cover the plants and ensured all staff exclusively walked on the mats. The mats also were regularly rotated by CS Energy’s team in order to not disproportionately impact certain parts of this control area and to allow the machines to access necessary locations. In the moderately cautious construction area, only tracked equipment could be used and motion was restricted to prevent blueberry damage. According to the University of Maine, the blueberries are recovering better than expected where panels were installed with the most precautions.
“To date, Navisun and CS Energy have installed over 40 MW together across multiple projects, however, this project posed additional challenges the teams needed to collaborate on and overcome,” said Ichter. “All three parties worked to discover and implement the most cost effective solution while protecting the blueberries and creating the highest energy producing system as possible.”
This non-traditional site was also located on the south side of a small mountainous area and the sublayer was almost all ledge, which required CS Energy to conduct significant rock drilling. Additionally, track mounted construction equipment was required in order to install screws into the ledge to construct the racking system without harming the blueberries. As a result of the teams’ optimized and detailed construction methodology in the face of sensitive farmland and challenging topography, the project was completed on time and on budget and was recently named a Construction Project of the Year Finalist in the 2021 S&P Global Platts Global Energy Awards.
The University of Maine has begun monitoring soil quality and moisture in addition to crop production in each of the three defined construction areas with the ultimate goal of creating a new playbook for blueberry farmers looking to maintain their farms as well as host new solar farms.
“CS Energy, Navisun and BlueWave Solar have all been incredibly engaged and cooperative throughout the whole process, which is crucial, as this is not only the first project of its kind for the University of Maine, but also for the entire state,” said Dr. Lily Calderwood, University of Maine Extension Wild Blueberry Specialist. “CS Energy and Navisun have supported our work with BlueWave in researching and implementing the best dual-use construction and farm management methods to both further this essential research for the state as well as to ensure the continuation of this source of income for generations of blueberry farmers to come. The potential for this project to pave the way in providing farmers with alternative income streams while still producing the iconic Maine wild blueberry is exciting, and we’re thrilled to be a part of it.”
Crucial research to further develop agrivoltaics market and farmers’ incomes
There are numerous, proven synergistic benefits for sites that co-locate solar arrays and agriculture. Research already indicates that there is the potential to increase crop production by up to 70% as well as reduce water use by 30% when co-locating solar arrays with crops. Researchers from the University of Maine anticipate similar findings from Navisun’s Rockport Maces Pond Agrivoltaic Project. Additionally, research from an NREL project site has already indicated that solar panels with crops growing underneath stayed cooler by about 16°F and produced 2% more electricity than those without crops growing underneath. Ultimately, additional supportive research from this agrivoltaic project will likely persuade more farmers, landowners, installers and developers to take on dual-use projects.
Once the research from this project is made publicly available in 2022, all prospective solar developers, project owners, EPCs and other interested parties will be better able to decipher the most cost-effective and efficient ways to co-locate solar energy systems on agricultural sites. This research is key to providing evidence-based guidance about maximizing land use, particularly as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) projects that by 2030, utility-scale solar could cover almost 2 million acres of land in the United States. A recent Oregon State University study also estimates that converting just 1% of American farmland to agrivoltaics would not only meet the nation’s renewable energy targets, but also save water and create a sustainable, long-term food system.
The Rockport Maces Pond Agrivoltaic Project is representative of CS Energy, Blue Wave Solar and Navisun’s collective commitment to land stewardship. In addition to fostering the growth of a clean energy future for all, the companies aim to be good neighbors by protecting wildlife and habitats and creating solar projects that allow for simultaneous agricultural use. Working jointly with farmers, researchers and developers, the companies seek to establish alternative, efficient construction processes that maintain current price targets and protect underlying agricultural purposes.
“This type of project is in alignment with our corporate directives,” said John Malloy, managing partner and co-founder of Navisun. “Owning a project that is innovative and the first-of-its-kind, driving learnings that will support both the advancement of clean energy and dual-use in a sustainable manner is top of mind for us. We’re grateful to have completed this project alongside partners like CS Energy and BlueWave Solar that share similar values and we are looking forward to the findings of the pilot program.”
As a result of CS Energy, Navisun and BlueWave’s strong partnership, Navisun’s over 140 years of combined industry expertise, and CS Energy’s experience efficiently completing over 1.5 GW of solar projects, the companies were able to successfully implement this advanced agrivoltaic pilot project. By 2022, the pioneering Rockport Maces Pond Agrivoltaic Project will provide the industry with critical research on dual-use projects to both enable the proliferation of similar agrivoltaic projects as well as protect and grow farmers’ incomes and local economies.