The following story is published in partnership with Crosscut, a reader-supported independent non-profit news site covering the Pacific Northwest.
Two geodesic domes are being built in Nespelem, 16 miles north of the Grand Coulee Dam and the headquarters of the Colville Indian Reservation. Ricky Gabriel jokes that they look like Thunderdome from the 1985 movie Dystopia crazy max.
Gabriel, a contractor in Okanogan County, sees Nispilum domes as a difficult mathematical puzzle, requiring careful cutting and installing wooden trusses to create ball-like structures that would be covered in clear crystal plastic to become greenhouses.
The domes consist of 20 straight sides that result in halves of 20 feet long and 35 feet in diameter. Each provides nearly 1,000 square feet of crop space to grow a variety of vegetables and flowers, spread out horizontally and stacked on shelves vertically.
These compact growing spaces also leave room for solar energy to grow outside. Two adjacent rows of solar panels will be able to produce 20 kWh per year.
The solar cells will provide electricity for heating and running irrigation equipment for the domes. Excess food and electricity will go directly to neighboring homes. The planning and implementation of the so-called agricultural photovoltaic project will be an example spread across the network for planners, farmers and engineers interested in learning more about this new way of using agricultural land to grow both food and electricity at the same time.
“The community is very excited about it,” said Tauni Bearcub, project manager for Konbit (pronounced “kone-beet”), a Boulder, Colorado company that specializes in food farming programs with a focus on Native American lands. She is also a member of the Colville Nation.
The project is set to be ready by July — less than a month after President Joe Biden ordered emergency measures to boost supplies to US solar manufacturers and announced a two-year tariff exemption on solar panels from Southeast Asia. This will be Washington’s first project in the field of voltaic agriculture, combining solar panels with growing crops.
The idea of voltage farming first appeared in 1981 in Germany A suggestion from scientists Adolf Goetzberger and Armin Zastrow that solar panels and agriculture could share the same land to make it more profitable. This concept took off about 10 to 12 years ago as solar costs fell. The practice, also known as photovoltaics in Germany and solar energy sharing in Asia, is still more common in Europe than in the United States.
In the United States, agricultural PV cells have gained a foothold mostly east of the Mississippi River while they have also appeared in Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and now Washington in the west.
“The East Coast has been somewhat more active on this,” said Chad Higgins, associate professor in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering at Oregon State University.
Agricultural sites are small. Jordan McNick, an energy, water and land analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, estimated that crops and solar panels jointly use only about 50 acres of land nationwide. The Nespelem site has an area of about one-third of an acre.
MacNick said photovoltaics don’t seem practical for farms of hundreds and thousands of acres, but that these projects are more suitable for small-scale installation. “The sweet spot is 20 acres or less,” he said.
There are three types of agricultural projects. The first is the solar panels between crops. Second, sheep or other animals chewing grass graze in the shade of solar panels, which can be found in New York and Minnesota.
The University of Minnesota installed 30-kilowatt solar panels on a dairy farm in 2018 for a 2019 study of how cows interact with solar panels. That study found that cows were seeking shade from solar panels, which reduced their grazing. The university plans follow-up studies on the cows’ reproductive performance as well as the long-term effects on their health, milk, fat and protein production, as well as weight and body condition.
The third type of hive includes flowers, where bees roam around solar panels collecting pollen to make honey. Such projects can be found in Vermont, Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin.
Aveda Hair Care maintains beehives on its campus in Blaine, Minnesota. She added a 900 kilowatt array of solar panels to the flower field used to generate electricity for her campus.
National spaces for pastures and beekeeping are not available.
Solar panels and farming thrive best on the same type of loose soil that accommodates both crops and steel beams. Even as agricultural cells grow, the need for clean energy is likely to increase tensions over rural land use in many places. Estimates of the land area required to meet Biden’s goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035 range from an area larger than Delaware to an area the size of South Dakota.
“There will be tremendous pressure on farmland from solar energy,” Higgins said last September at the Washington State University Extension Service. Video conference in San Juan County on Agriculture. Higgins did not respond to numerous email and phone requests for an interview. San Juan County’s farmland—also expensive real estate—has been steadily shrinking in recent years, and he presented voltaic farming as one answer to this challenge.
Agrivoltaics requires a careful balancing of sunlight, costs, solar panels, and crops. The solar part and the crop part have a very complex relationship.
The main challenge comes in deciding which crops to grow. There is a limit to the height of the solar panels—typically six to eight feet—which translates to how much the steel to use would cost. The height and angles of the panels affect the shade and sunlight that reaches each crop row. It should be noted that not all crops need sunlight all day, and some do better when shaded at times. The space between the rows of solar panels should accommodate the largest piece of farm equipment to use. Another wrinkle is that crop types may change from year to year.
“For the most part, the solar part of the equation is more straightforward,” said McNick of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
“Ag needs to adapt to whatever solar array is present,” said Byron Cominick, co-owner of Jack’s Solar Garden in Longmont, Colorado, which includes four acres of solar panels and works closely with the lab.
One of the global facts seems to be that electricity generation is the largest and most reliable source of money on these farms. McNick estimated that electricity sales from a location could be up to twice as much as crop sales.
Another complicating factor is regulations. Agrivoltaics combine industrial and agricultural uses of rural land, a concept that does not fall neatly into zoning regulations almost anywhere. MacNick and Higgins said land use rules vary from county to county.
When the Jack Solar Park, which produces 1.2 megawatts of electricity annually, was first proposed five years ago, the host county was only allowing 100 kilowatts of production on their farmland, so they had to change local zoning rules.
Security is another issue, with competing priorities from usually separate entities: developers want a restricted site, while farmers want easy access. Oregon State University just opened an experimental agricultural farm with many different governments and owners.
The insurance talks were hot. Who is responsible for what? Higgins said, adding that lawyers “have been through months and months and months of ‘what if’ solutions.”
In the video conference, Higgins noted that the main obstacle to deploying electric vehicles in large numbers is their limited range coupled with the lack of rural charging stations. He speculated that strategically placed agricultural farms could serve future rural freight stations and interstate highways.
Enter Konbit, whose projects include very small farms, including the agricultural operation in Nespelem. “If you grow food on precision farms, why not add photovoltaics?” Konbit founder Sanjay Rajan said.
Rajan is a Colorado longtime businessman who specializes in financing small businesses such as promoting textiles produced in India and providing food for the poor, especially Native Americans. Originally an engineer, he earned an MBA from Columbia University and London Business School.
Rajan brought Hugo Grisetti, an old architect of geodesic domes from Brooklyn, to design the Nespelem domes.
Colville State does not have an energy division, and Conpet is not connected to the Nespelem Valley Electric Co-Op. Nespelem’s $100,000 project costs are paid for by federal grants. The $48,000 annual National Renewable Energy Laboratory grant will be used to collect data from the Nespelem project for a period of three years. The actual annual operating budget has yet to be determined. “It’s a prototype,” Konbit’s Bearcub said.
The Colville Preserve is divided into four areas, and Bearcub eventually hopes to install one set of domes in each area.
“Hopefully it will be a truly scalable model,” MacNick said of the Nespelem project.