In the northern foothills of the Catskill Mountains, a short radio tower encircled by photovoltaic solar cells stands in a pine forest clearing. As the sun rises, the solar cells power artificial intelligence that records and reinterprets the natural sounds found in a meadow in eastern New York State, then broadcasts them to internet and FM radio stations.
“Solar Radio” is one of several installations powered by solar at Wave Farm, an organization in Acra, New York, pioneering the auditory medium of transmission arts. Across its 29 acres, Wave Farm explores the boundaries of experimental radio transmission through 12 installations that create sounds from sources like sunlight, weather patterns and traffic, and synthesizes them into entirely new audio.
“Really, what we’re talking about is art intentionally using the electromagnetic spectrum, radio being one of the seven categories. Visible light is in there too, so it starts to become pretty conceptual,” said Galen Joseph-Hunter, executive director at Wave Farm. “But it’s really about the act of transmission and reception and communication. It’s very much radio art, which you can think of more as art made explicitly for radio broadcast.”
While many of these transmission art installations run on individual solar panels, the plan had always been to power all of Wave Farm’s grid-tied facilities with solar, including a radio transmission tower on a separate parcel. For a decade, Joseph-Hunter researched solar installation and spoke to contractors and peer organizations to find an installer that could bring PV to Wave Farm when it was finally financially feasible.
“It’s uniquely tied to our interest in financial sustainability, ecological environmental responsibility and organizational artistic mission in a way that makes it an incredible trifecta of impact,” Joseph-Hunter said.
Transmitting solar to all radio
Wave Farm started in 1997 as an artist collective operating an experimental music venue and micro radio station in Brooklyn. Seven years later, the group migrated to the Hudson Valley, a region with a history of embracing the arts, where Wave Farm also runs a community FM radio station called WGXC.
The organization broke ground on its Study Center in 2006 and completed the facility in 2012. The Study Center has housing for resident artists, a research library, a broadcast studio and offices, and was built with the goal of hosting Wave Farm’s long-sought solar project. In 2021, Wave Farm contracted Northeast solar installer SunCommon to design and construct a 48.6-kW array on the building.
“Solar should not just be for for-profit companies,” said Tavit Guedelekian, integrated marketing director at SunCommon. “It’s great that it saves money, but it shouldn’t be about just moving the margin. They built that building with the intention of going solar. It’s a part of their mission and obviously a part of ours.”
Despite its initial intent to hold solar panels, the Study Center did require some reinforcement to do so. Structural beams supporting the roof spanned the 26-ft length of the building and would have been stressed further by the addition of solar, so installers reinforced the beams with laminated plywood and vertical strutting in sections closer to the ceiling.
The Study Center’s roof is a single pitch covered with corrugated metal that appropriately resembles a sine wave. SunCommon installers were building the array through the winter, contending with an icy roof, snow and rainfall. They hoisted equipment to the roof with a 60-ft boom lift and, when the ice slid away, managed to move hardware around safely.
SunCommon installed 108 LG 450-W panels at the same 7° pitch as the Study Center’s roof, covering about 90% of its surface. The array uses four 10-kW SolarEdge string inverters and optimizers and S-5! CorruBracket metal roof mounts with SnapNrack rails.
The system was sized to power the grid-tied electrical loads on site, including the Study Center and transmission sculptures, and generate enough renewable energy credits to cover the electrical load of Wave Farm’s radio tower located on a separate property through remote net metering.
A ’symbiotic’ partnership
SunCommon is a small commercial and residential solar installer that started in Waterbury, Vermont, and recently merged with Hudson Solar of Rhinebeck, New York. The company is a certified B Corporation, participates in local solar advocacy and founded the Climate Action Film Festival in 2020, which shows climate activism-focused work from filmmakers around the world.
“I actually didn’t know about that until we started our conversation, but it became very obvious that it was a symbiotic connection,” Joseph-Hunter said. “They very quickly wanted to engage with Wave Farm as one of their storytelling projects.”
SunCommon produced a video series on Wave Farm, showcasing its facilities, transmission art installations and the new solar project. The solar contractor is also a Wave Farm underwriter, regularly donating to the organization.
While there is no transmission art sculpture creating sounds directly from SunCommon’s solar installation, there is equipment on-site that responds to electromagnetic activity, “so the solar install is certainly contributing to those recordings,” Joseph-Hunter said.
A place like Wave Farm, where art is the purpose, is an uncommon project for solar contractors. Solar has the same impact on a department store rooftop as it does for an art collective where submerged microphones record the sounds of a pond, a synthesizer hums along with changing weather and pipes project radio operas into a pine forest.
“I think there’s a bit of synergy or poetry to the fact that now that entire campus is powered by these light waves that are being converted into energy by our little installation on their campus,” Guedelekian said. “For the next 20 to 25 years, every artist and researcher who comes through that space and uses that campus is also going to be powering their work with solar waves, and that is freaking cool.”