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Can Dual-Use Solar Panels Provide Power and Share Space With Crops?

Companies like BlueWave are betting on it. But the technology has its critics.

In its 150-year history, Paul Knowlton’s farm in Grafton, Mass., has produced vegetables, dairy products, and, most recently, hay. The evolution of the farm’s use turned on changing markets and a variable climate. Recently, however, Mr. Knowlton added a new type of cash crop: solar power.

For Mr. Knowlton, a fifth-generation farmer and the current owner, it was an easy call. He had already installed solar panels to provide electricity for his home and barn. When a real estate agent came knocking to see if he was interested in leasing a small portion of his land for a solar array, “she planted the seed that I could do more,” Mr. Knowlton said.

Mr. Knowlton looked at several companies but was most impressed with BlueWave Solar, a developer in Boston that focuses primarily on solar installations and battery storage, which allows excess electricity to be fed to the power grid. Soon, two small parcels of largely unused land were home to low-to-the-ground panels that produce power. This year, Mr. Knowlton’s farm will go one step further: In a third parcel, solar panels will share space with crops so that both can thrive.

This approach is called agrivoltaics — a portmanteau of agriculture and voltaic cells, which transform solar power into electrical power. Also called dual-use solar, the technology involves adjusting the height of solar panels to as much as 14 feet, as well as adjusting the spacing between them, to accommodate equipment, workers, crops, and grazing animals. The spacing and the angle of the panels allow light to reach the plants below and have the added benefit of shielding those crops from extreme heat.

Solar panels on Paul Knowlton’s farm in Grafton, Mass. Cattle will graze below the panels, which rise to 14 feet above the ground. Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
Mr. Knowlton prepares the soil between the panels before he plants butternut squash and lettuce. Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

The electricity generated gets uploaded to the grid, typically through nearby substations. While some of the electricity may find its way to the host farm, the projects are devised to provide power for general use. And such solar installations provide an alternative source of revenue in the form of payments to landowners like Mr. Knowlton or a reduction in lease payments for tenant farmers.

BlueWave has focused primarily on designing the projects, then selling them to companies that build and oversee them. The Grafton project, on Mr. Knowlton’s farm, for example, is now owned by The AES Corporation, an energy company.

“Not only do agrivoltaics advance the clean energy imperative but they are critical to maintaining working farms,” said John DeVillars, one of BlueWave’s three co-founders and the chair of the board of directors.

Dual-use solar became of interest more than a decade ago because “big installations in the middle of nowhere aren’t going to solve all of our energy problems — transporting that energy can be very expensive,” said Greg Barron-Gafford, a biogeographer and an assistant professor at the University of Arizona. Farms in many parts of the country are in peri-urban areas, zones of transition from rural to urban land. Their proximity to high-use metropolitan areas makes open farmland particularly suitable for solar arrays, but in the past, without any coexisting agriculture, that sort of placement can set up a conflict over whether food or energy production should prevail.

In a study by AgriSolar Clearhouse, a new collaboration to connect farmers and other landowners with agrivoltaic technology, the installations were also shown to foster growth by shielding crops from increasing temperatures and aiding with water conservation. While the technology remains in its infancy in the United States compared with countries in Europe, where the technology has been used for over a decade, federal regulators, as well as academics and developers, are working to remedy that disparity.

Early results are promising, said Garrett Nilsen, the acting director of the Solar Energies Technologies Office of the U.S. Department of Energy. “There’s a project in Arizona where they’ve seen a threefold increase in crop yields when they are underneath this kind of system and up to a 50 percent reduction in irrigation requirements” because the panels provide shade, he said. Additionally, the plants under the panels release water into the air, which cools the modules, creating what Mr. Nilsen described as a “symbiotic relationship between the plants and the panels.”

BlueWave’s first project to go live is a 10-acre farm in Rockport, Maine — now owned and operated by Navisun, a solar power producer. Wild blueberry cultivars have been planted below solar panels, which will produce 4.2 megawatts of power; the project is estimated to produce 5,468 megawatt-hours annually — equivalent to the amount of power needed for roughly 500 U.S. households.

Unlike Massachusetts, Maine does not offer significant incentives for the use of solar power, so there was a 10 to 15 percent premium on costs when compared with similar projects, which BlueWave absorbed, Mr. DeVillars said. (That practice is consistent with the company’s status as a so-called B-Corporation, which requires a commitment to social and environmental goals.)

Other players are clearly seeing the potential of agrivoltaics: On May 12, Axium Infrastructure, an investment management firm, announced its acquisition of BlueWave. Trevor Hardy will remain as chief executive and Eric Graber-Lopez will continue as president, while Mr. DeVillars will become chairman emeritus.

Mr. Hardy said that the sale would allow BlueWave to expand so that it will own and operate, not just develop, solar installations and battery storage. Ultimately, he said, the sale “puts us in a stronger place for dual-use.”

From left, Trevor Hardy, John DeVillars, and Eric Graber-Lopez of BlueWave Solar, on Mr. Knowlton’s farm. Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

“Farmers work on a long-term basis,” he continued. “It’s more compelling to drive up farm roads and sit with the owners at their kitchen tables and say that we develop, own, and operate the installation.” And the technology’s potential goes well beyond blueberries; agricultural uses have included vineyards and shrimp farming.

BlueWave is not the only agrivoltaics developer. According to the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE, based in Germany, five megawatts of power were produced through these systems in 2012; by 2021, 14 gigawatts of power were generated in dual-use systems — roughly equivalent to the electricity necessary for approximately two million U.S. households annually, according to a spokeswoman from the Department of Energy’s technologies office. And the technology is evolving rapidly; in the few years since the installation at Mr. Knowlton’s farm, adjustable panels that can move to maximize the capture of sunlight, for example, have been developed.

“It doesn’t always pay to be a pioneer and it’s very challenging at times,” said Mr. Hardy, who grew up in a South African farming family. Finding suitable sites — where there is sufficient sun and proximity to a substation or other electrical infrastructure — can be difficult. Opposition from neighbors, especially where panels are visible from other homes or even the road, is not uncommon.

Indeed, BlueWave was one of several defendants named in a suit over a proposed plan for agrivoltaics in Northfield, Mass. A state court recently ruled that the neighbor had the standing to challenge the proposed development. One of the plaintiffs, Christopher Kalinowski, said that among his concerns were that his views would be obstructed and that “the area will lose farmland.” (Mr. Hardy declined to comment on the litigation.)

Panels are spaced apart to allow the planting of crops. The background parcel is reserved for only solar panels. Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

In addition, some chapters of the Audubon nonprofit environmental organization have been vocal about the technology’s potential effect on wildlife. Michelle Manion, the vice president of policy and advocacy for Mass Audubon, said that while her organization supported renewable energy, including solar within farming operations, “we want to maximize the placement of ground-mounted solar on some of our lands that are the least ecologically sensitive first.”

And there are general concerns that even with dual-use solar panels, arable land may be lost, though BlueWave says that the land can be reverted to pure agriculture uses once the solar leases — typically 20 to 30 years — expire.

But one of the most significant obstacles is cost. The skyrocketing cost of steel has a direct effect on agrivoltaics’ emphasis on raising the panels 10 to 14 feet. “For every foot, you go up you need to go two feet into the foundation,” Mr. Hardy explained. “It’s a challenging industry when you think of what we need to do to reach climate goals. But we’re staying the course.”

Ultimately, though, everything depends on how the crops taste: If flavor or even appearance strays too far from that of traditional produce, the technology will be a hard sell. But in an early study, researchers at the Biosphere 2 Agrivoltaics Learning Lab at the University of Arizona found that tasters preferred the potatoes, basil, and squash grown with agrivoltaics. Beans, however, may take some time: The small sample of tasters preferred the traditionally grown version.

Article by: Ellen Rosen

Via: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/28/business/dual-use-solar-panels-agrivoltaics-blue-wave-power.html

stanford solar panels

Stanford Scientists Create Solar Panels That Work At Night

The Stanford panels, which feature a thermoelectric generator that harvests electricity, can only generate 50 milliwatts per square meter at night.

Scientists from Stanford University succeeded in making solar panels that continue to generate a small amount of energy at night, according to research published in the journal Applied Physics Letters earlier this month.

How do the panels work? 

While most solar panels produce around 200 watts per square meter during the day, the Stanford panels can only generate 50 milliwatts per square meter at night.

The device, developed by Sid Assawaworrarit, Zunaid Omair, and Shanhui Fana, includes a thermoelectric generator that harvests electricity from the temperature difference between the PV cell and the ambient surrounding.

The thermoelectric generator also provides additional power during the day, according to the research. 

The scientists stressed that standard solar panels can only produce power during the day and require substantial additional battery storage systems.

Stanford solar panels
A worker walks next to parabolic mirrors at the research site of solar power company Brenmiller Energy near Dimona (credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)

Harnessing the outgoing heat flow

Standard solar panels work by taking heat from the Sun and using the ambient surroundings of Earth as a cold sink and converting solar radiation into electrical power. However, radiative heat also flows from Earth to space, causing radiative cooling from objects. The outgoing heat flow is present both at night and day.

The researchers realized that they could use the outgoing heat flow to produce energy as well. 

According to the research, the new device can be used to provide nighttime standby lighting and power in off-grid or mini-grid applications, but can also have a lower maintenance cost compared to battery storage. The team theorized that the cells can be improved to have better performance.

Via: https://www.jpost.com/science/article-704656

ms porrima

Shipping generates more CO2 than aviation. This solar-powered boat could change that

For his first few days at sea on the MS Porrima, Gunter Pauli was stunned by the silence aboard his solar-powered ship.

“When you have no engine running, there’s silence. There’s a real sense of awe and resilience, and you have a lot of time on your hands to reflect,” the Belgian entrepreneur and economist said in a phone interview. “There’s a clear feeling of, ‘Oh my God, I’m vulnerable — I better use what I have carefully.'”

Using limited resources effectively is the core philosophy underpinning the Porrima, a concept boat centered on environmental research, which aims to show how sustainable technology could revolutionize the shipping industry.

Maritime transport drives over 80% of global trade, but it disrupts marine ecosystems, contributes to ocean acidification, and accounts for more CO2 emissions than aviation each year.

The ship set sail with a small crew from Osaka, Japan on December 18, and is expected to make dozens of stops on five continents. It will complete a three-year circumnavigation voyage before returning to Japan in time for the 2025 World Expo.

ms porrima
The MS Porrima pictured in March during a scheduled stop in Dubai. Credit: Audrey Meunier

Artistic design inspirations

The ship is a case study in sustainability. A miniature farm allows Pauli to cultivate edible spirulina algae and mushrooms below deck, while air bubble nets prevent overfishing by separating fish by weight and then releasing the reproductive females, which tend to be heavier due to their eggs. As well as being largely powered by solar panels, the vessel will soon be equipped with a filter that isolates and concentrates nanoplastics from seawater and converts them into hydrogen fuel.

Pauli believes that design features on board the 118-foot-long, 79-foot-wide ship are just as important as green energy production when it comes to promoting Porrima’s environmental message.

The interiors of the Porrima’s two primary rooms, the VIP suite, and the main hall were inspired by an eclectic mix of Russian matryoshka dolls, Japanese origami, and Swiss Army knives.

With limited room onboard, the dolls inspired a series of storage solutions that easily slide and fit inside one another to save space. The intricacy of origami, meanwhile, is replicated in various shelving units, seating areas, and tables that can surreptitiously fold into walls like drawers. Lastly, the adaptability of the Swiss Army knife is reflected in the multipurpose main hall, which can be converted into a classroom, exhibition space, library, or dining hall.

These three influences may at first seem disparate, but Pauli said they are tied together by the efficient and creative use of minimal materials. He used ideas from each to “transform” the Porrima’s internals, he added.

ms porrima
Credit: Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia

“The ship is a compact set of practical tools integrated into one unit,” Pauli said. But it is also, he added, is inspired by art.

Believing that “a great artist is a great antenna in society,” Pauli modeled his design on renowned painter and theorist Michelangelo Pistoletto’s notion of the “Third Paradise,” which proposes a balanced convergence of nature and technology. In turn, the 88-year-old Italian artist, who also spoke to CNN, believes that the ship offers “the possibility” of making his concept a reality.

“The climate crisis is the situation we find ourselves in after the evolution of our technology, but the more we are free, the more we advance, the more we must be responsible,” Pistoletto said over the phone. “And art is the interaction of autonomy and responsibility.”

Pistoletto is among several artists whose work will be displayed inside the ship, which he described as “the reintegration of technology into nature.”

For Pauli, this sense of responsibility — for the environment and communities bearing the brunt of unsustainable practices — was the driving force behind the project. “We have done too much analysis (on environmental issues), and too much analysis on the problem often leads to paralysis. I knew that whatever we’re doing is falling way short of what is needed, but it’s also falling way short of what is possible.”

We can’t just improve on what we have,” he said. “You have to use your consciousness and creativity to imagine the next thing and the next thing cannot be a mere improvement. So I decided to start creating projects that were considered impossible.”

ms porrima
The MS Porrima pictured in Osaka, Japan, prior to its departure. Credit: MS Porrima’s Blue Odyssey/Handout

Mission to educate

Interactive education is at the heart of the Porrima’s three-year journey. At many of its stops across the globe, Pauli hopes to connect with members of the public, academics, and industry leaders while teaching them about the ship’s design. The main hall, when transformed into a classroom, will be used to teach children about the innovations on board, with the hope of inspiring future generations.

But Pauli also hopes to inspire change in the immediate future, with some of the ship’s technology expected to be disseminated through the shipping sector. By 2024, Pauli said, his nanoplastic filters are set to be installed on a thousand ships in the Mediterranean Sea to initiate a larger-scale cleaning campaign. And by 2025, Morocco is scheduled to launch a fleet of ships equipped with Pauli’s air bubble fishing technology, he added.

“It’s not enough to invent something. Once you’ve done something unique, democratize it and make it available,” he said, adding: “There’s a sense of empowerment when you realize that this technology can really be used to help communities that rely on unsustainable practices.”

Written by: Eva Rothenberg, CNN

Via: https://www.cnn.com/style/article/ms-porrima-shipping-sustainability-scn/index.html

Top image caption: Aerial shot of the MS Porrima