UMass Amherst Study Will Assess Impact of Dual-use Solar-agriculture Installations in Massachusetts

Farms and communities need more science-based information on effects, experts say
Dual-use solar research installation at the UMass Extension farm in South Deerfield. Courtesy: River Strong/UMass Amherst.
Dual-use solar research installation at the UMass Extension farm in South Deerfield. Courtesy: River Strong/UMass Amherst.

AMHERST, Mass. – The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Solar Energy Technology Office announced recently that a team led by extension professor Dwayne Breger at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has been selected for a three-year, $1.8 million award to study the effects of co-locating solar energy panels and agriculture operations at up to eight different farms across the Commonwealth. The work will be in partnership with landowners, state agencies, solar developers and a non-profit farmland organization.

Breger, who is also director of UMass Clean Energy Extension, says, “Our objective with this award is to have the opportunity to do robust research to address the dearth of data on the impact of this solar approach to agricultural productivity and farm viability. We need data on how the agriculture will perform, and how the project economics will affect individual farms and the state agricultural economy as a whole.”

He adds, “Right now, many communities don’t have the necessary experience to understand and manage the solar development that is coming, and farmers don’t have science-based facts to fully assess the opportunities that developers are proposing to them. Our project will do the research to allow us to help farmers and communities make informed decisions about the solar opportunities that are coming their way.”

Breger points out that two state agencies, the Massachusetts Departments of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) and Energy Resources (DOER), are keenly interested in this project, as outcomes will provide the science to inform policy development.

Jody Jellison, director of the UMass Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment and UMass Extension, says, The dual use of land for farming and solar energy has gotten many people excited about its potential. Now, with this new project, we’ll be able to begin developing data to quantify the agronomic and economic effects on farming to determine whether that excitement is warranted or not.”

Breger and research colleagues at UMass Extension, the UMass Cranberry Station, the campus’s Department of Resource Economics and the American Farmland Trust will study the economic and social impact of solar-agriculture co-location on farms by establishing site trials and assessing crop productivity, soil health, and micro-climatic conditions. Sites will grow a range of crops including pumpkins, strawberries, greens, winter squash, cranberries, hay, grazing, other vegetables and other small fruit.

Farm partners are in Grafton, Carver, Dighton, Plympton, Hadley, Colrain, and Charlemont. Solar developer partners BlueWave Solar, Pine Gate Renewables and Hyperion Systems are dedicating portions of their commercial dual-use solar installations at these farms for research site trials enabling a robust research scope over varied agricultural conditions. Most site trials will get underway in March 2021 in time for the first planting, Breger says.

He and colleagues will also study public acceptance of solar-agriculture co-location and develop practical co-location management guidelines for growers, solar developers and other relevant stakeholders. The U.S. DOE says it is interested in “research and analysis that enable farmers, ranchers and other agricultural enterprises to gain value from solar technologies while keeping land available for agricultural purposes.”

Breger notes that UMass Amherst’s Crop Animal Research and Education Center and farm in South Deerfield hosts one of the state’s first dual-use solar-agricultural installations, giving the campus valuable early experience in this research area.

MDAR Commissioner John Lebeaux says his agency is “thrilled and thankful” that DOE selected the experienced and diverse UMass team for this important land use research. “This study will help us further understand the agronomical criteria necessary for viable, compatible dual use of agricultural land and solar installations over a range of agricultural production and conditions” – important information for Massachusetts farms wishing to keep their valuable agricultural land in active, marketable production while implementing clean energy, balancing both needs and goals, he notes.

DOER Commissioner Patrick Woodcock adds that this project builds on the department’s existing support of promoting solar development along with maintaining existing agriculture production. “Designing solar projects to maximize both energy and agriculture yields on the same property requires extensive data collection and this award from DOE will contribute to Massachusetts’ leadership in this emerging sector.”