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Massive Solar Farm Under Consideration in NE Kansas; Could Agrivoltaics Play a Role?

 

Officials in northeast Kansas are considering a plan to build a large-scale solar farm that would straddle the border of Douglas and Johnson counties. Florida-based energy company NextEra Energy has expressed interest in developing a 3,000-acre solar panel farm, which would be located east and north of Baldwin City. KPR Commentator Scott Carlberg has spent decades working in the energy sector and wonders whether "agrivoltaics" might play a role in the proposed project.


Commentator Scott Carlberg has more than 40 years of experience in energy industry communications in the U.S. He's worked in corporate communications for oil, gas and electricity organizations as well as for nonprofit, research and higher education groups. He lives in Leawood.

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(TRANSCRIPT)

Let the Sun Shine on Solar Energy and Farming
By Scott Carlberg

In Kansas, you may hear comments like this about solar energy: No more solar fields. Land should only be used for agriculture. Yet, research is showing that “either/or” thinking may hurt us.

To make the most of our energy potential, we need to tap technology and change some patterns of thinking.

Kansas has the expertise for farming and grazing ... and solar energy, too. The combination just doesn’t quickly add-up in our heads. At first, it is tough to grasp that ag or solar do not have to be exclusive on a piece of land.

A researcher at Colorado State University – a grassland ecologist named Alan Knapp, who previously taught at Kansas State University - is opening minds about solar power and farming. He’s helping move the discussion from an either/or way of thinking... to a both/and frame of mind. Knapp’s study is about sustainably co-locating agricultural and photovoltaic electricity systems. According to Knapp, “It’s all the same – harvesting energy from the sun.” One is through plants and the other photovoltaics. The goals of the study is to maintain or increase the combined food and electricity productivity of land and diversify profits for farmers.

There’s a name for it, too – agrivoltaics. The name itself opens up thinking.

Psychology holds us back. Even with the best of intentions, people can get trapped into false dilemma logic. Another name for it, you guessed it – either/or thinking. By oversimplifying something, the inference is that if one idea is true the other has to be false.

But binary thinking is simple. Life is not. Neither is the solar and agriculture possibility.

Some people believe that if land is used for agriculture, it cannot be used for solar energy, too. In some cases that’s true. In others, it’s not. All or nothing should not be part of agrivoltaic thinking. There are just too many possibilities.

Here’s one issue: People have tried to fit agriculture into existing solar field designs. But why? Other options should be on the table. Optimize both, not just one. Can that be done? In some places, this is already taking place.

     • Solar panels can be raised so that crops grow or grazing can take place beneath
        solar arrays.
     • Panels can be spread out, not put together in tight rows, to allow room for planting
       crops.
     • Given the need to conserve water, panels have been touted as conservation tools.
     • Some designs feature vertical, not tilted, panels that open up lots of room.
     • Solar panels are becoming more efficient. Not as many panels may be needed to
       make the same amount of energy as a few years ago.

My advice for success in agrivoltaics? Run from the extremes to the grey middle in solar and agriculture. That is where we can find success. Reaping benefits from agrivoltaics will shed new light on the subject of energy and agriculture.

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Check out these reports from the Lawrence Journal-World on the proposed northeast Kansas solar farm:

Interested in Kansas energy topics? Check out another essay from KPR Commentator Scott Carlberg:

Energy in Kansas? The Answer Is Blowing in the Wind