Agrivoltaic pilot program on Maine blueberry farm set to provide critical dual-use insights
By Lisa DeMarco, Principal Advisor and Founder, Climate Tech Marketing
From increasing crop production and efficiency of solar panels, to provide new land prospects in the face of dwindling locations for solar energy projects, to create a long-term sustainable food supply, there are numerous reasons why agrivoltaic energy, or the colocation of solar power plants with productive farmland, is fast grown from approximately 5 MW of installed solar power in 2012 to nearly 3 GW in 2020. In recent years, CS Energy, a national engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) company, Navisun LLC, an independent producer of solar energy, and BlueWave Solar, a solar developer, have teamed up to develop, finance and build an innovative agrivoltaic project in Rockport, Maine, that will advance the clean energy industry while supporting local farmers.
In the summer of 2021, the companies completed this award-winning, first of its kind dual-use solar project and pilot program on a blueberry farm in Maine. While simultaneously executing this solar project, they 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, on every aspect of this groundbreaking project to both increase the sector’s agrivoltaic knowledge base and help local economies grow.
Pioneering an Agrivoltaic Pilot Program at Maine Blueberry Farm with University of Maine
After more than a decade of working with BlueWave Solar, Navisun’s leadership team began working with the company and the University of Maine on an innovative agrivoltaic pilot program and 4.2 MW community solar project on a blueberry farm in Rockport, Maine, last year. year – the first program of its kind in the state. Thirty-eight U.S. states currently grow blueberries, and a recent survey found that blueberries generate more than $4.7 billion in economic activity annually, with wild blueberries contributing $250 million annually to Maine’s economy. By supporting research institution partners and the design and construction teams and analyzing methods for building 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 also help to protect farmers’ livelihoods and provide new sources of income.
Overcoming dual-use construction challenges
Since wild blueberries often take ten to twelve years to grow, research into good 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 different ways farmers can effectively harvest existing blueberry farms placed next to solar panels. Portions of the five acres are divided into three different areas to test different levels of defined construction procedures to determine the effects of each approach, which has vastly different labor requirements and construction costs. CS Energy, Navisun and BlueWave, together with the University of Maine, have developed and implemented individual building plans for each of the control areas.
“We are excited to partner with the University of Maine and industry leaders such as Navisun and BlueWave Solar on this innovative project that will help drive the growth of the agrivoltaic market and support local farmers,” said Chris Ichter, director of business development at CS Energy.
In the most cautious construction control area, the team developed methods to limit crop damage. As part of this collaborative process, the CS Energy team invested in nylon mats to cover the plants and ensured that all staff walked exclusively on the mats. The mats were also regularly rotated by the CS Energy team in order not to disproportionately affect certain parts of this control area and to allow the machines access to the necessary locations. In the moderately cautious construction area, only tracked equipment could be used and movement was restricted to prevent damage to blueberries. According to the University of Maine, blueberries are recovering better than expected where most precautionary panels were installed.
“To date, Navisun and CS Energy have installed more than 40 MW together in multiple projects, but this project presented additional challenges for the teams that had to work together and overcome,” said Ichter. “All three parties have worked to discover and implement the most cost-effective solution, while protecting the blueberries and creating a system with the highest energy production.”
This non-traditional site was also on the south side of a small mountainous area and the bottom layer was almost a ridge, forcing CS Energy to perform significant rock drilling. In addition, it took track-mounted construction equipment to install screws into the ledge to build the racking system without damaging 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 within budget and was recently named a Finalist construction project of the year in the 2021 S&P Global Platts Global Energy Awards.
The University of Maine has begun monitoring soil quality and moisture content 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 and host new solar farms.
“CS Energy, Navisun and BlueWave Solar have been incredibly engaged and collaborative throughout the process, which is critical as this is not only the first project of its kind for the University of Maine, but for the entire state,” said Dr. Lily Calderwood, University of Maine 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 practices to both advance this vital research for the state and ensure the continuation of this source of income for generations of blueberries The potential for this project to pave the way to provide farmers with alternative sources of income while still producing the iconic Maine wild blueberry is exciting, and we’re excited to be a part of it.”
Crucial research to further develop the agrivoltaic market and farmers’ incomes
There are numerous proven synergistic benefits for solar and agricultural sites. Research already indicates the potential to increase crop production by up to 70% and reduce water consumption by 30% in co-locating solar panels with crops. University of Maine researchers anticipate similar findings from Navisun’s Rockport Maces Pond Agrivoltaic Project. In addition, research from an NREL project site has already shown that solar panels with crops 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 is likely to persuade more farmers, landowners, installers and developers to engage in dual-use projects.
Once the research of this project is made publicly available in 2022, all future solar developers, project owners, EPCs and other interested parties will be better able to decipher the most cost-effective and efficient ways to deploy solar energy systems in agricultural sites. place. . This research is key to providing evidence-based guidelines for maximizing land use, especially as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) projects that utility-scale solar could cover nearly 2 million acres of land in the United States by 2030. . A recent Oregon State University study also estimates that converting just 1% of U.S. farmland to agrivoltaic energy would not only meet national renewable energy targets, but also conserve water and create a long-term sustainable food system. .
The Rockport Maces Pond Agrivoltaic Project is representative of the collective commitment of CS Energy, Blue Wave Solar and Navisun to land management. In addition to fostering the growth of a clean energy future for all, the companies strive to be good neighbors by protecting animals and habitats and creating solar energy projects that enable simultaneous use in agriculture. In collaboration with farmers, researchers and developers, the companies strive for alternative, efficient construction processes that maintain current price targets and protect underlying agricultural goals.
“Projects like this are in line with our corporate guidelines,” said John Malloy, managing partner and co-founder of Navisun. “Owning an innovative and unique project of its kind, fostering lessons that will support both the advancement of clean energy and dual use in a sustainable way is a top priority for us. We are grateful to have completed this project together with partners such as CS Energy and BlueWave Solar who share similar values and we look forward to the findings of the pilot program.”
As a result of the strong collaboration of CS Energy, Navisun and BlueWave, Navisun’s more than 140 years of combined industrial expertise and CS Energy’s experience in efficiently completing more than 1.5 GW of solar energy projects, the companies were able to successfully implement an advanced agrivoltaic pilot project. By 2022, the groundbreaking Rockport Maces Pond Agrivoltaic Project will provide industry with critical research on dual-use projects to both enable the proliferation of similar agrivoltaic projects and protect and grow farmers’ incomes and local economies.