In this third and final episode on agrivoltaics, we dive into the agronomic research studying different types of cropping and grazing systems that may be compatible with solar arrays. We talk to Sarah Moser of Savion, a solar development company, and Eric Romich of Ohio State University about their collaboration “Between the Rows.” Then we talk to Brad Heins, Associate Professor of Dairy Management at the University of Minnesota, to get the latest information on grazing cattle underneath solar panels.
JASON FISCHBACH 0:00
This is a podcast about new crops. You’re gonna love it. Join us on The Cutting Edge, a podcast in search of new crops for Wisconsin.
Sarah Moser 0:10
As a farmer, you know, you look at these sites and you see ground that you can use. Right. And so every landowner that I talk to is like, Hey, have you thought about growing soybeans in their or pumpkins? I mean, you’ve heard it all right, all these different specialty crops. And you know, Eric’s team and Eric made a great point that that having something that will be scalable when you’re talking about 1200 acres, we have a project that 6000 acres.
Steffen Mirsky 0:55
Welcome back to The Cutting Edge, podcast in search of new crops for Wisconsin. In this third and final episode on agrivoltaics, Will and I dig into what farming might look like on agrivoltaic sites. We first talked to Sarah Moser of Savion Energy, a solar development company, and Eric Romich of Ohio State University on large scale agrovoltaic projects that they’re collaborating on together. And then we talked to Brad Hines, a Professor of Dairy Management and Extension Specialist at the University of Minnesota, about his research on grazing cattle underneath solar panels. Let’s jump right in.
Sarah Moser 1:34
Hi, everyone. I’m Sarah Moser from Savion. I’m the director of farming operations in agrivoltaics. I’m actually a farmer as well, in northwest Ohio. We farm about 1500 acres. I farm with my dad and my brother and my husband. So family farm, and corn, wheat and soybeans, we actually added livestock to the operation. So we’re doing it all right now, I do live in a wind farm and we have had some people sign us up for solar as well. So we’re familiar with that on the farming side of the house. And then, of course, I’m doing development and working with Savion to bring the two together. So that’s me.
Will Fulwider 2:14
Excellent. Eric, who are you?
Eric Romich 2:17
Good afternoon, Will, and thanks for having me. My name is Eric Romich. I’m Ohio State University Extension Field Specialist for energy education. So I’ve been with with Extension since 2008. And I started as a county based Extension educator, and really, in that county role kind of had my first experience with renewable energy development and working with, you know, at the time, what we thought was a massive project, right, an 85 acre solar field and the county and so that was kind of my first exposure to renewable energy development, and, you know, taking a look at kind of the good, bad and otherwise and how those projects, impact communities and various ways. And so since that, that time, I guess in 2008 and 2012, I moved into the statewide position where I just focus solely on energy education now and I get pulled into really everything from oil and gas development in the eastern part of the state to wind up in the northwest and you know, utility scale solar development all across the state. Over the years, we’ve done a lot of financial modeling for farmers that were interested in putting solar in on their farm to power their operations behind the meter. So you know, really get kind of pulled into a lot of different aspects within energy. And, and certainly since I’d say 2016, utility scale solar development has really been the the topic that’s drawing the most attention right now here in Ohio.
Will Fulwider 3:55
Sounds like you’ve got a lot of projects going on. But we want today we want to focus on one specific project. And that is this Between the Rows project that you have as a partnership between Savion Energy and Ohio State. Eric, can you speak a little bit more about the research that’s currently underway with this project Between the Rows?
Eric Romich 4:14
Yeah, and this is a really exciting project that you know, it’s it’s been something our team here at OSU has been looking at for a while, and, you know, we’ve had three or four attempts at getting this type of research off the ground and just didn’t quite have the right partnerships in place to have things work. But really, essentially, what we’re looking at what really starts the whole interest in agrivoltaics is you know, as we look across the state and and not just in Ohio, but you know, the Midwest in general. There’s just so much utility skill development right now. And you know, any energy sources is going to have you know, strengths and weaknesses i That’s one thing I can say traveling the state is everybody’s favorite source of energy is the one that’s generated somewhere else. And you know what when we look at solar, the one weakness as we’ve seen these projects scale up is that they have a large footprint, right? It takes a lot of horizontal surface area to generate the power. And so, you know, we were trying to explore what types of multi land use options exist within that we’ve kind of within the parameters of two key points. So is it economical? Because we want something that the industry will adopt, right? So this gets commercialized and put into practice? And is it scalable? Can this be a solution that can scale up to 1000s and 1000s of acres? And so I try and really highlight that point that we’re not discounting other agro voltaic practices, but we were really focused on what can we scale up? And what can be economical. So our team at OSU was really interested in forage production. And, you know, obviously, we have some forage specialists on our team. But as we were kind of putting together the parameters of a research project, obviously, we needed a partner for a site. And that’s when we kind of partnered with Sara and Sathyan. And, you know, through the, between the rose partnership with Savion, we were able to identify a research site that allowed us to quickly just answer a couple of questions. And so I guess, as your backup one step, the reasoning for this is, we can’t wait to get results, right, like we need to get seeds in the ground now. And so we were just trying to find a site that was that was available. And that’s, you know, Sarah was was able to provide one of those for us through this collaboration. And so we really wanted to initially look at this and say, you know, what are the best practices for establishment? Does it grow? And what’s the quality, like, that’s kind of our first step at, you know, if we can understand that, then we can kind of look at scaling this up and more of a commercial scale, kind of in a phase two, but kind of that that first step is, you know, we don’t even know the recommended seeding rate, we don’t know how the crops are impacted by portions of the alley that may be in full sun versus full shade. And so those were some of the things that we looked at. And so, you know, the the project that was put together, we essentially developed 12 test plots within an existing solar farm that’s at the hog farm there Pigtails, LLC, and Van Wert. And each of those is roughly I think, 16 by 21, or 16, by 22 feet. So small test plots, but within each of those, we had a couple of variables we had variable seeding rates. So if you could imagine, at at this research site, we have essentially three alleys. So an alley being you know, that space in between two solar arrays, right that you can visualize running equipment down, that’s, so we had three alleys, and each of those was a separate was it was was a separate seed mix. So we had a cool season hay mix, and the first alley, alfalfa and the second alley, a mixture of I guess we’ll just say cover crops at this point and the third alley, and then we had our control zone that was outside of the solar arrays. And then with each of those seed varieties, we had varying seeding rates. So we did 75% of the recommended rate 100% of the recommended rate, and 125% of the recommended seeding rate. And then the final kind of cross section, there would be as mentioned, this is a fixed tilt system. So there’s portions of these alleys that experience pretty intense shade, whereas the other half or I should say, two thirds experience, you know, full sunlight exposure, so kind of monitoring the differences in shade versus sun as well as something that we were really interested in. And so, you know, we’re sitting here now we’ve we’ve completed kind of two growing seasons. So we had our establishment year and then, you know, in year two, we really got some really good data in terms of the forage quality and how the the crops were producing.
Will Fulwider 9:08
Great, we’ll get back to what those kind of results are saying here in a second. Sarah, anything to add to that, I know that you’re kind of you’re doing the hand side of things, but you’re also really interested in growing crops, corn and beans, under these solar panels, so I’m curious where things stand with that.
Sarah Moser 9:24
Yeah, for sure. So, first, like as a farmer, you know, you look at the sights and you see it, and you see ground that you can use, right. And so every landowner that I talked to is like, Hey, have you thought about going soybeans in there or pumpkins, or, I mean, you’ve heard it all right, all these different specialty crops you see him doing out in Colorado, you see him doing it places where where they’re trying different things. And, you know, Eric’s team and Eric made a great point that that having something that will be scalable when you’re talking about 1200 acres. We have a project that 6000 acres, I mean, so. So when you have that much space, it that’s, that’s a lot of tomatoes, you know, that’s a lot of cucumbers if you go out and you do produce, and so it didn’t even, you know, you see grazing everywhere, it’s a lot of sheep. So Eric’s solution and Ohio State’s solution of forage crop and this hay in this alfalfa really made sense and resonated with me. Because one, we got to feed all those sheep, if we do start a market for it when we do the grazing on solar sites, but then, you know, my, my heart definitely lies with the soybean, and, you know, in corn. So, you know, Eric mentioned, the site is on our farm, and we maybe have planted an alleyway and soybeans, I’ve actually got corn growing in one right now. So so I’m testing a little bit outside the Ohio State project is done, because we’ve kind of moved up and move to a different or a bigger project. So I can kind of play with it a little bit, the way that, you know, I’m able to and, and I won’t lie, took my 20 foot drill down through there. And you know, we got stuff growing. So we know, it grows, and we’re and we’re working on it. But you know, it’s interesting, and it’s wonderful to have Ohio State involved in you know, that, that you guys are doing this with, with your extension agencies, because as a farmer, we know, it’ll grow. But we need that research. And we need those numbers in that data and everything to go with it, to prove the science behind it and say, Yeah, we know it’ll grow, but we can prove it will grow. And we see the numbers and the crude proteins and what’s coming out of it. So that’s kind of helped establish the story to the people that need to make the investment to go bigger. Right.
Eric Romich 11:34
Yeah, I can kind of add to that a little bit. Sarah, you know, one of the things that when I say our team, I’m I’m including Sarah, and I mean, she’s part of our, our research team, and this effort, as we kind of brainstorm you know, what are the opportunities? What are the challenges? We’ve, I’ve started to kind of use the phrase solar ready, or I’m sorry, “hay ready solar site”, like, you know, ultimately, like, this isn’t something that we’re suggesting, hey, this is just a drop in solution that just move along, do things as as normal business as usual. And know, if you want to grow forward, just go do that. Right. It’s, it’s not how this is gonna work. And so it’s, it’s kind of this chicken or the egg scenario, right? Where do we start? And that’s where I think that we have to have a good handle on establishment quality yields that we can do some, you know, ultimately, we’re not there yet. But ultimately do some some sound economic modeling to say, yeah, here’s the potential. From that point, then, you know, developers will need to have these considerations to say, well, what do we need to do to make a site that a farmers wouldn’t come in to manage forests on a commercial scale? And with that, and when I say, hay ready solar site, I mean, I’m thinking of things such as alleyways, like, you know, Sarah mentioned, there’s, you know, 6000 acre site in Ohio. So you don’t want to do 6000 acres of forages and have your ally widths as such that you’re doing a full cut and the way down in a partial coming back over 6000 acres. Right. So those types of considerations, as you think about, you know, what does the safe operation of equipment look like at a commercial scale? And how can we design these systems, so that it has that in mind, right, that’s not to say that there might not be some drop in solution potential where you could, hey, you know, this is a good fit, it can it can be done here. But you know, I think moving forward, we want to get to a point where we can kind of fine tune this and say, look, here, the turn radiuses that are necessary here. Recommended alley widths are multipliers that you might look at for standard equipment and different ally situations. And, you know, at the end of the day, it’s going to require the the ag sector and the solar sector start talking a little bit more.
Steffen Mirsky 13:49
Sarah, did you have anything to add in terms of the design of these solar installations? You know, when you’re when you’re thinking about co-locating them with agriculture? Like what what do you have to design differently from a solar installation that doesn’t do agriculture?
Sarah Moser 14:06
Right, so well, that, you know, that’s a great question. And I think that part of what we’re doing with Ohio State now is going to, to help answer that what we’re seeing a lot with with this project specifically, or well, as we move into the next project is we’re looking into precision ag right. And there’s so much technology out there right now that we can work with a lot of the designs. So really what it’s coming into is that pre planning and just that best practices that thinking like a farmer ahead of time and realizing that you’re not just slapping in some solar panels, right that you’re and this is where it’s important where we’re investigating forage, but also other crops because Savion has a portfolio across the nation, right? We’re building projects in Wisconsin and in Arizona, different crops, different you know, climates to worry about or concern different equipment that we want to operate. So it’s really project specific and looking at, well, what do they want to do here? What does this community value? What do they want to see happen with their solar project, and then being able to take it back to my engineers and say, here’s the possibilities, we could raise the panels, we could bury the cable, we could, you know, make the alleyways wider, we could, you know, leave different areas for different things. And so, I think it’s just, it’s thinking like a farmer, it’s turning that, you know, solar industry into realizing that, hey, we’re working with the land, we really are solar farmers, right. And we need to think that way of what’s best for the land, and what’s going to leave it in the best condition as we move forward.
Will Fulwider 15:43
And speaking of citing places in Wisconsin, you know, we are the dairy state. That’s what we do, we make hay, is one big thing that we do, which is why I wanted to talk to you all, because looking at how do we optimize hay production in utility solar sites has could have huge implications for a lot of these solar sites in Wisconsin. And, you know, I want to I want to check in with you, Sarah, and see how your beans are doing right now. But I do want to see kind of what are the results that have come out of this research so far.
Eric Romich 16:12
So I can kind of give you a high level overview on some of our preliminary results. Christine, who’s our forage specialist here at OSU Extension is kind of, she’s working through trying to get those those results cleaned up and into a technical report that we can kind of share here and the short, not too distant future, I guess I’ll say, but you’re in general, like if as we look at the the alfalfa, you know, focusing in on say crude protein, most of our samples were grading out, as I should say all of them were above premium, and most of them, just over half were above prime levels, when you think about percentage of crude protein. So we were kind of in a range of 19 to 26%. Similar results, when you look at alfalfa by relative feed quality, most everything was above premium, kind of in a range of 146 to 156. So And those were, those are your two readings. So that’s kind of excluding the establishment year, as I kind of share those ranges. And very similar results when we looked at the the cool season hay mix. So the one thing I will say is, again, these are all kind of lessons learned as we as we move through this and think about what it looks like on a commercial scale. A couple of the the obstacles that we did face with our establishment year, we really had a lot of foxtail, that was kind of crowding out or a cool season mix, we’re obviously we were able to spray the alfalfa and kind of get that back on track. But we really just had to kind of mow down the the hay and kind of cross our fingers going into year two, kind of hoping that would come in, and it did really kind of bounce back good. And year two. But again, I think all but one of our year two samples, were when you look at it in terms of percentage of crude protein, I think is all but one of our samples came in above premium, and about half of them came in above prime, so kind of think of a range like 18 to 26%. And then with your relative feed quality, kind of that same that 146 to 154 was kind of the range that of results that we saw with with again, most of those grading out above premium.
Will Fulwider 18:51
How did the biomass production compare between the shade the ones under the solar panels and out in the sun?
Eric Romich 18:57
So in terms of the in terms of like the actual results to say like, here’s what the yields were, I don’t necessarily have that data in front of me. But you know, I will say that, you know, visually, the forages that were in the full shade zone, had kind of that deeper green, more lush kind of appeal to them. And it appeared to be a little bit thicker. Again, I don’t have like the yield results in front of me. But our initial thought was that yeah, that would really not perform well. And kind of as we looked, I was like, well, there’s actually, you know, possibly some advantages to that. And so as you think about the difference in that that was a shade zone that was kind of consistent. Your utility scale projects have single axis trackers, so it’s going to be a little bit more evenly dispersed right and not as intense and kind of focused into one area. So that might actually be just something that could benefit And that’s something that we’re going to really kind of zeroing in on on our face to research is, how does how does the shade being more evenly dispersed with a single axis tracker system? impact this but the last thing I’d say in terms of shade versus full sun, is there seems to be less weed pressure in that area as well.
Will Fulwider 20:21
Oh, interesting. Sarah, how are your beans looking?
Sarah Moser 20:24
The beans look good. So I was looking at the numbers because Eric said he didn’t have in front of him. I got the Ohio State, the slideshow that we did here in front of me, and it looks like first cutting 58% second cutting 62% so that in prime they’re on your biomass, so I was good news all around. Right. And that’s what I’m hearing now is like solar super power is shade. Shade is protecting the plants, you know, with the soybeans, we’re seeing, like a broader leaf development, right? Because it’s just like, it’s not the sun’s not beating down on it. Right. And like baking them out. So shade has been a good thing.
Steffen Mirsky 21:05
So it sounds like yeah, good news all around. But I’m sure there have been some challenges that you faced along the way. Can you just kind of speak to what some of those have been, some of the major challenges?
Sarah Moser 21:18
Oh, boy, well, I will say some of my biggest critics are farmers. So you know, of course, every farmer is the best farmer in the world, and they can tell you how to do it better, or that you can’t do it like they can, right? So I’ve had people tell me, you know, oh, hey, won’t grow here, or that won’t work? Or, you know, I’ve pretty much anything out there that just, you know, I think it’s it first they didn’t accept hybrids, right. They didn’t accept hybrid seed back in the day. And we had to plant you know, hybrid seed in with our kids and the kids would grow it in the plot in the backyard. And when it outgrew daddy’s corny, he realized he better start growing hybrids, right. So I think it’s just that attitude of change, where, you know, it will require a different type of farming, we’ve been used to clearing out fence rows, you know, for the last 100 years and making the biggest possible field we can and giant equipment, you know, we all want to run these huge planters and the these bigger corn heads are bigger, you know, Draper heads on on our equipment, and it’s like, no, maybe we need to go back to a little bit smaller equipment, maybe some autonomous equipment, you know, and I think that that’s going to improve soil compaction, that’s going to help us with a lot of different things. But that farmer mindset might be one of the bigger challenges I see which, you know, I, I said, I work with my dad. So you know, you get that as a farmer all the time. Um, as far as the industry goes, you know, I gotta say Savion has been wonderful. They’ve been very progressive and forward thinking with agrivoltaics, and they’ve allowed me a lot of reign to try things. So I appreciate that. But like, you know, farmers get things done, we figure out solutions. And so, though, there are challenges, I feel like we’ve been able to overcome a lot of those, and especially with the help of Ohio State and and the universities to provide that academic support on what we’re trying to do.
Will Fulwider 23:25
You mentioned a little bit about the big equipment, and, you know, maybe we need to go smaller. And I’m just curious, are you have you been having to use specialized equipment of any sort? And for the hay, are you trying to do dry hay or are you bagging it?
Sarah Moser 23:42
That’s a great question. So right now we’re using the equipment that we have. And you’ll find, you know, a lot of farmers still have that conservation planter in the barn somewhere, you know, we’re doing our filter strips with something smaller, we’re working, you know, the smaller fields with something still so you can find it. You know, but as we’re moving into a field of growing agricole Tech’s, you know, we’re hearing Kubota is a partner on on our grant that, that Eric will talk about later, you know, and they’re looking at smaller equipment, equipment that will work between the rows, because when you get up to 6000 acres, you’re not going to want to run a 20 foot drill through there, right? It’s a little tight, you want to have something that’s specialized for it, so and then the autonomous equipment makes so much sense. You know, in all of our kids, they love video games and robots, right? So like, getting them excited about this next generation of farming that’s happening is playing into this precision ag equip equipment and some of these solutions we’re finding so I think starting out it will be a mix of both. You know, we’ve got I’ve got a hate bind that goes down through the rows right and it’s just just the regular thing you got parked, you know, here we are on the farm, so it’ll be a transition time. I think we’re all learning and I think that it will work a little bit both ways starting out. So hope that answers your question Will
Will Fulwider 25:05
Yeah, just to follow up on that, for that for the hay, is it something that you’re trying to dry out underneath the panels? Or is it you know, you’re bagging it at higher moisture?
Sarah Moser 25:14
Right. So we’re actually we let it dry on the site on the between the rows site, we let it dry, we raked it, you know, we did all of that it actually got rained on once. And so we had to rake it up and get it ready again. But we’ve talked about the solution of wet wrapping because if there’s a case where you know, with your single axis tracker, you know, you make hay when the sun shines. And that’s when I need my resource for my solar panels, right. So I’m not going to want to turn them and have a make the row wider during the day. So the solution would be, of course, go ahead and cut and wet wrap it in the evening, late evening, when the sun isn’t something you’re not going to lose the resource. So that’s where, again, working with the solar company, and finding solutions there. I was recently in, in Israel, and they’re looking at a lot of the different times of day and how the shading, you know, next tracker works with some of the, you know, the position of the sun in the sky, those kinds of things. And I think those will be solutions you’ll see in agrivoltaics moving forward here.
Steffen Mirsky 26:21
Eric, did you have anything you wanted to add to that in terms of challenges that you faced?
Eric Romich 26:26
Yeah, I think Sarah kind of had a pretty good summary of that. I mean, we touched early that, you know, one of the challenges was, was we weed control? Right, so we had some, some, some foxtail. That was was an issue in our establishment year for the cool season test plots. The other thing, I guess, I’d say, would, you know, timing and weather, right? I mean, those, those are difficult to predict and control. And so our cover crop test plots, I mentioned at the beginning that we had an alleyway for cover crops. We didn’t we didn’t really get any good data from from those test plots. Because the we tried turf grass, initially, and that didn’t take and then we came in later and tried to do a crimson clover, and that got washed out. So you know, and, you know, we have some pictures of our test plots where, you know, literally looks like a pond. So we’re, we’re supposed to have crimson clover germinating, and so that was, you know, those those were some challenges for sure. And I think that, you know, just, when you when you try to, to scale that up, then what does that look like? Right? So I still think it’s there’s a lot of questions logistically to how does this look, when we go out of, you know, this this small proof of concept research and into a more commercialized application? And what are the logistics of that look, like?
Steffen Mirsky 27:56
Just to follow up on that, how close are we to being able to roll this out on a on a large scale commercially?
Eric Romich 28:05
Well, I guess I can kind of take that I’m not sure. If it’s something that, that you guys are aware of there. But we we have utilized this data and kind of packaged into a Department of Energy proposal that was recently awarded, so we’re kind of in the final negotiation phases of of that award. So we haven’t technically started yet, but we’re, you know, the project’s been awarded, we’re kind of working with DOD to kind of dot the i’s, cross the T’s and get a start date. But I think that, once we get through that research, you know, the first couple years of that research, I think it’ll tell us a lot in terms of how ready we are to say, here’s how you go about best management practices to establish these forage systems in 1000 acre, or, you know, Sarah 6000 acre site, right. But that DOE project, we’re really kind of look at it as for kind of core buckets of, of research focus, and our first is, is to kind of get replication on our forage crop production. So take what we learned with our test pilot plots, and put those into more of a commercial application. So you know, we’ll have like 35 acres of our test plots that are under glass there, and then of course, control zones. In it again, that’s that’s going to get to that point of, you know, how different are the results based on the construction practices or construction impact, right. The other thing that we’re looking at is complimentary grazing. And so, you know, Brady Campbell, who’s our, our sheep grazing specialist here at OSU, you know, Brady has been contacted by, I’d say every solar developer on the East Coast time about grazing these sites and it’s liek there’s not enough animals in North America to graze all the solar that’s gonna fit in Ohio. And so, you know, one of the things that we were looking at though is, you know, if we can mechanically harvest most of the site, and then obviously, there’s going to be strips next to the post that you don’t want to get too close with equipment. So you know, he’s going to be doing some research with kind of, I guess we’ve kind of tagged complimentary grazing, so we’ll come in and harvest a zone and then he’ll come in and kind of target graze that area to clean up the around the post and so forth. Well, we don’t get too close with the equipment. And of course, he’s going to be looking at, you know, animal behavior, and health and weight gain and, you know, equipment and how you actually manage those herds within the within the zone. So that’s our second bucket, the third area Sarah has touched on, and that’s precision agriculture. So really looking at, you know, how do we utilize precision ag and digital technology to to optimize the management of these sites? You know, as you look at 1000s, and 1000s of acres, potentially, that we could be, you know, have potential to grow forage crops on. And so, again, Kubota is our partner on this DOE project with that, and we have Dr. Shear, here at OSU Ag Engineering kind of taking lead on that aspect. Then the last one is soil health. And that’s, that’s one we’re, you know, we’re really excited to, to better understand what is the site look like post construction, right? So we have, we have compaction samples, all across the site and a lot of compaction samples in our research zone, looking at, you know, what were the compaction levels of this site as it’s existed in a corn soybean rotation over the years, and we’ll come in post construction and get a comparative reading to see okay, so how bad was the disturbance? And then from there, you know, what series of cover crops could we use to help, you know, expedite the, you know, decompaction of those sites coming out of construction. So, you know, thinking of, you know, some deep tap rooted type cover crops that could help break up those top soils and, and get them ready to put back into production. But, yeah, that’s one of the area’s and Cirrus sees this as well. I mean, it seems like when when you hear people talking about solar at this magnitude, the biggest, the biggest negative you hear is all you’re taking good prime farmland out of production. And the other end of that you hear well, we can put it right back into production when we’re done. And I think the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. But we don’t really know, right, we don’t know what the impact of the site is. But to just say that, well, we can’t farm it again, I think is, you know, let’s get some data to see. And, you know, I think the ability to look at this on the construction side will give us the right management practices when when you do look at kind of end of project life or decommissioning, right. So if we can identify strategies to de-compact the soils using cover crops, and different rotations after they construct it, very similar process to take it out, right, so then we can kind of apply that on the back end of these projects to help get them back into some type of production sooner rather than later.
Will Fulwider 33:31
Well, all of that sounds pretty dang exciting. Sounds like we’re gonna have to check back in and a couple of years to see how this much larger project is going and updates from that. Well, is there anything that you all would like to add here at the end, and the last couple minutes we have left?
Sarah Moser 33:47
I don’t think you should wait that long to check in, Will, I think you need to come sooner. So hopefully, we’ll be seeing, you know, depending on how the DOA awards go, you know, we’re thinking this fall here to get to get the hay and alfalfa out so that we’ll have something growing and, and have something for you to look at and come down and see and, and visit us I know a lot of people head out to Farm Science Review in Ohio. We might not be ready by September, it’s September 19, 20, 21 this year, but maybe next year, everyone needs to come to London, Ohio and stop out and see Madison fields. So and then we keep mentioning the 6000 acre project, you know when that when that maybe gets out there, we’re gonna be doing some real cool stuff. So it’s exciting. It really is. And I tell this farmers out there, you know, instead of fighting it or saying it’s not going to work, figure out how to be a part of it, you know, and whether it’s cheaper, or, you know, even dairy cows, you know, it doesn’t have to be under the panel’s there’s so much buffer area involved with these sites. Maybe you need grazing, you know, maybe there’s a solution there. Cooney Cooney pigs, you know, people are grazing those. So there’s lots of different solutions. As for these projects, and farmers all have a side hustle, so they need to keep their, their ears open. And, you know, their brains turn in for ways to be involved. Because this is something that that’s happening. And it’s it’s exciting.
Eric Romich 35:14
Great, Eric, any last thoughts?
Speaker 4 35:16
Oh, no. I mean, I would just echo serious enthusiasm. I mean, this is something that, you know, as I mentioned, I’ve been working Christina, and I’ve been trying to get this off the ground since like, 2015 2016, right, we’ve had, we’ve had three or four different sites along the way, that it’s like, okay, this is going to happen, it’s not gonna happen. And so, you know, finding a partnership, where, you know, they’re truly interested in you, how can we do this better? And I think that that’s a question we should all be asking ourselves. I mentioned, you know, earlier in the podcast, as we kick this off, you know, everybody’s favorite form of energy is one, it’s generated somewhere else, right? All of all of these different sources have their flaws, and there’s no kind of silver bullet that this is our solution. And it’s okay to say that out loud. Sometimes, I feel like people cringe, but it’s like, oh, well, this is a weakness of, of solar. It’s okay. Right? There’s, there’s a challenge. So how can we how can we try and address that? How can we try to minimize that, and that’s, you know, that’s what we’re doing here is the weaknesses, it takes up a lot of horizontal surface area, but what we’re trying to do is find ways that we can still, you have that as productive ground that can be feeding into multiple end industries, you know, it kind of eliminates some of that, you know, pinning food versus energy against one another. And so, I think there’s a lot of potential here, but the thing that is really going to be critical moving forward is to make sure that, you know, we can identify these, these, these little challenges and hiccups along the way and start to kind of flush them out so that we can say, you know, here’s your guide to doing this on a commercial scale, here are the things you really got to look for, as it relates to, you know, operating equipment in these zones, or, you know, design considerations on the developers in so that we can get equipment through the alleys. Right. I mean, that’s, that’s, that’s a major deal. When, when sit when Sarah, Sarah called me one point and said, I don’t I don’t know, we’re gonna not bury this DC cable, I was like, well, we can’t run tractors to the alley, if the cables are there. And so those types of challenges are, they’re real, and they happen every day, but at the same time, it’s that awareness, it’s that communication that can say, look, here’s what we can do, you know, how can we work together to to make this happen and, and demonstrating that it can actually be done on a commercial scale? And then and then when we get to economics, I think it’s really gonna change some things.
Will Fulwider 37:51
Well, Sarah, and Eric, thanks for coming on today. We really appreciate it.
Eric Romich 37:57
Sarah Moser 37:57
Thank you guys.
Steffen Mirsky 37:59
And now we’re gonna dive into our conversation with Brad Hines from the University of Minnesota to talk about grazing cattle underneath solar panels.
Will Fulwider 38:08
Brad, can you give an introduction to yourself and an idea of what led you to agriculture takes in the first place and some of the research that you’re doing?
Brad Hines 38:15
Sure. So I’m a professor of dairy Management at the University of Minnesota, and I’m actually located at the West Central Research and Outreach Center. So I’m about two and a half hours west of Minneapolis and St. Paul, where the main campuses so even though my, my home is technically in the Department of Animal Science in the Twin Cities, I live and work out at a research center where we have 300 cow dairy 1000 acres of land, where we do research on pasture based dairying and everything that surrounds dairy production here in Minnesota, we we really got into agri Voltex with some of our early research, probably 10 years ago, we had an idea so to monitor our our dairy herd here for energy usage. So we put a whole bunch of sensors on motors fans, we started monitoring water usage, so we know exactly how much water we use, how much energy you know, every little fan uses. And vacuum pump, milk pump, you name it. To get an idea of what our farm uses for energy. I should say we also have pigs here. So we have probably 60 sows farrow to finish. And we have been monitoring the hogs as well. So it’s kind of a farm system wide initiative that we have to sort of make our dairy farm and cropping operation sort of carbon neutral, I guess, so it sort of led us in that we have all this monitoring information from our dairy. Then I actually got a research project where we started monitoring on farms. So we went to five Minnesota farms that ranged from 200 cows to 10,000 cows, and did the same thing monitored all the energy usage to see what farms were using for energy and water on farms. So we can apply kind of renewable energy technologies, whether that’s wind turbines or solar panels. And so once we got all that energy usage, we started moving into agrivoltaics. In Minnesota here, there was quite a few people, grazing sheep under solar panels. And, you know, I know Wisconsin as well, I grew up along the Wisconsin border, and Minnesota there are, there is not a lot of sheep in Minnesota to be able to handle all the solar installations that were going up. So it was kind of our idea of, well, why don’t we put cows under it and see what happens. We nobody’s really ever done that. And so that sort of led us down that path, and we put up a solar installation and decided to throw some cows under it. So very unscientific.
Will Fulwider 41:20
Sometimes it’s the way it works on science leading to science. That’s right.
Brad Hines 41:24
That’s right. So it you know, it was kind of a long road to get us to, to solar, but we’ve been pretty fortunate to be able to put up some solar installations.
Steffen Mirsky 41:36
Yeah. So what have you found in the meantime, do you do you think agrivoltaics is well suited for dairies?How are the how the cows doing under the panels?
Brad Hines 41:48
Sure, yeah, the cows are doing well. And it’s, it’s worked out well, for us. You know, when we first started, we, we really thought about the cows and, and, you know, can they damage the panels? What can they do to wreck them, which is actually the first thing that that most people think of when, when you put up solar panels and cows, I, you know, I probably get five to six emails a week from people with probably that same question about are the cows going to wreck the solar panels if I, if I put cows under it? And we we thought of all of those ideas. So we actually put the panels about eight feet up, it was not really scientific at all, I went out and found the tallest cow in our herd, and then decided, how far can she you know, reach in the air with her tongue. And let’s put the panels at that height. So that’s sort of how we settled on eight feet. Very unscientific way to figure out how, how to put up solar panels, but we decided that eight feet was was tall enough based on, you know, we had poles and structures and stuff to think about as well. Our first solar installation that we put up was 30 kW. So it’s two banks of 15 kilowatts, where we put them eight feet in the air. And we, we concreted all the poles in the ground. So six feet down, which was probably a little overkill, actually, you know, we just didn’t know what the cows were going to do. So we decided to make it sturdy enough. So if cows were rubbing on it, or pushing on it, it probably wasn’t going to wreck it, you know, we probably built it hurricane strength actually. And since then, we’ve learned that we, we probably don’t need that as much structure on the panels.
Will Fulwider 43:44
Do you find that the cows are rubbing up against the solar panels at all?
Brad Hines 43:48
You know, what, when we first put the cows out there, the first couple days, they maybe sniffed around, tried to rub on it, tried to lick the solar panels in the air. But, you know, but really, after that, we just don’t see them, you know, once in a while they rub up against it, but very, they just don’t do it that often. So we haven’t had any issues with cows under our solar panels with rubbing or, you know, wrecking everything. So, you know, we, we we actually put all the wiring and the racking up underneath the solar panels so that the cows can’t reach the wires. One thing that we also thought of, so our panels are in a pasture so for for pasture based cows, and we put the solar inverters outside of the outside of the fence. So thecows can’t bother the inverters either. And that’s, you know, maybe one thing that people might not think about is, you know, don’t put the inverters right next to the panels like we see in a lot of installations, so they probably have to be outside or if you are going to have the inverters where the cows can get them, you probably have to fence around it. So they stay away from that. But that’s what we found in all of our installations is just move the inverters outside of the fence and you won’t have any issue there either.
Will Fulwider 45:18
Have you done anything with the spacing of the panels? Is it you know, have you spaced them out further in order to facilitate forage production underneath it? Or is it pretty standard, as far as the spacing goes between the panels themselves on the racking and then between the rows,
Brad Hines 45:33
It’s pretty standard, actually, you know, there may be 25 feet apart or more between the two different rows. And we’ve kept it at that, just because to facilitate pasture growth, we also want it to get some shade. So it does cast some shade for the cows. That was our ultimate goal was to provide shade for animals that were outside, but we really haven’t modified any, anything out of normal, except raising them in the air, compared to what you probably would see in a large solar installation in in the Upper Midwest here.
Steffen Mirsky 46:16
Do you find that the cattle do take advantage of the shade under the panels?
Brad Hines 46:21
They do. You know, on a hot day, you will see them underneath the solar panels, they’re all standing there, you know, in the shade, sometimes they’re laying in the shade. Yes, they do utilize it a lot, especially when it gets hot and the sun is beating down on him. They utilize that. And it’s been good for us. You know, we had a graduate student, Kirsten Sharp, she did her master’s degree on looking at how the behavior of cows and how it can help reduce heat stress in in cows. And we actually found that it does reduce heat stress it, it lowers their body temperature by about a half a degree Fahrenheit or so when the cows are underneath the shade. So and they use it, they use the shade during the hot part of the day. You know, we had this 30 Kw system, which is pretty small, you know, it would be maybe what some some farmers would probably use for agri Voltex. You know, we only put, we could probably put 80 cows underneath this 30 KW system pretty easily. We’ve also expanded and in 2021, we built another one in our pastures a 240 kilowatt system. So much larger system that we could probably put, you know, 200 cows or 250 cows underneath that. We did the same thing, put it eight feet in the air, the inverters outside of the pasture. But this time, we didn’t use any concrete, we just sunk the poles in six feet into the ground. And that was it. And we just haven’t had any issue outside of that. So some of our lessons learned were we didn’t need to go overkill on on our solar panels because the cows really weren’t going to bother them at all.
Will Fulwider 48:28
Right? Probably the cold metal is not as much a satisfying scratching post as a tree or something like that. This is smooth, this is not giving me any type of satisfaction.
Brad Hines 48:40
Will Fulwider 48:42
Um, for the when the cows, you know, you said that they reduces their body temperature, they have less heat stress when they’re out under there. And in the end, I mean, does that affect the milk production at all? I mean, are you seeing, like, requisite increase in the milk production? Because they’re less stress? Are you getting less forage production because they’re under the shade, the forages that are there, and therefore, you know, they’re not maybe in taking as much as there’s not as much feed available.
Brad Hines 49:09
Sure, you know, that’s a good question. And we we didn’t really find any difference in in milk production for our cows when they were underneath the shade underneath the solar panels. However, you know, one issue that we had was our solar panels are stationary. So in our grazing cows, they were only maybe allowed those in the shade maybe 10 days out of the month and then they went some somewhere else because we were rotationally grazing them so they really had a short period of time. So we really couldn’t get a good handle on milk production because they went somewhere else that didn’t have shade and so it kind of defeated our whole purpose and trying to find milk production anyways. You know as far as the the forages go, we didn’t allow them to, you know, be underneath the solar panels for more than you know, like I said a week or 10 days because I felt that they might create some either mud holes if it rains, they could damage the the forage enough where it didn’t grow back. So we gave the grass and stuff a rest. So it would grow back under the panels and we didn’t wreck it. And it you know, the forage and it grew back quite well. No, no problems as long as we gave it a rest. And the cows weren’t allowed to just keep trampling it the whole time.
Will Fulwider 50:35
What are you seeing now? You know, I mean, in Wisconsin and southern Wisconsin, we’re in what we last week, severe drought now. And it looks really dry and a lot of the pastures and there’s a lot of dry grass, or the I don’t it’s probably not as dry for you as it is here. But I can’t imagine that the rains have been enormous there and nothing here. Right. And so have you seen like those cool season grasses that I imagine are probably growing under their solar panels and at the at your station? Are they doing better than those that are not under the panels?
Brad Hines 51:08
You know, we have been kind of in a drought here, we haven’t had as much rainfall as well. So the grasses are growing slowly under the panels, but they aren’t growing. However, one thing that we’ve noticed is, if the grass or whatever it might be, is in shade, it grows much better than when it’s in sort of full sunlight, especially during the drought. So the shade is sort of helping the grass, stay in a vegetative state and grow much better without all of that direct sunlight. And that was one thing that we noticed, even when we you know, we’ve been working on this project for maybe a couple years now looking at different forages. And I was surprised to see that in the shade. The grasses are doing so much better than in the direct sunlight. I didn’t, I didn’t realize that that would happen at all. So it was kind of neat to see that.
Will Fulwider 52:09
So you’re not seeing as much of a summer slump in those forages. And they’re not heading out. Wow. Well, is there specific forages that you all have kind of found that are really really great under the panels?
Brad Hines 52:24
You know, for us, actually, probably the best one so far is is orchard grass is doing quite well. Under the under the panels that it really grows well. Meadow fescue has done well, there’s, we’ve had some mixtures to you know, fescue, Orchard grass, and red clover seems to do well in a in a mixture underneath solar panels. So I think, and we have some of these, you know, all by themselves if you grow, you know, red, red clover by itself seems to do okay to the, you know, Orchard grass, by far is the best producing one, you give it some shade, and it just keeps growing. With no problem.
Steffen Mirsky 53:07
I wanted to ask about the type of fencing that you use.
Brad Hines 53:10
So our panels are within a pasture. So we have, you know, three high tensile wires that keep the cows in. If we want to fence out our cows from the panels or, or what you name it, we just use a poly wire, a small electric poly wire and our cows don’t really bother much of anything. So once they’re trained to the fence, they learn to respect it.
Steffen Mirsky 53:35
Okay. And then so what are you seeing as some of the hurdles to adoption for this type of system?
Brad Hines 53:43
You know, I, I think the biggest thing right now that I see or hear from people that I talk with, you know, all over the world is one of the big things is can we grow cattle? Can we raise cattle underneath solar panels? You know, are they going to wreck the panels? Are they going to destroy it? And I’ve usually, you know, can answer that question pretty quickly. You know, we’ve had our solar panels up for going on five years now, and we haven’t had any issue. The other one is probably cost, you know, right now, if I think back to when we first put the first installation in in 2017, 2018, you know, we didn’t have certain, you know, inflationary costs, actually there there was very little cost increase by putting the panels, eight feet in the air versus, you know, two or three or four feet in the air. So we were about $3 a watt for our solar installations. You know, now if you were going to do it and raise it eight foot, you know, steel costs or increase, you probably would have a little more cost to put them in, in in the air. So, cost is probably one of the big things that people think about what One other thing that that we have thought about here is, so what do you do with all the energy that you produce? You know, depending on your farm size, you know, will you use it all will you put it on the grid, you know, what, you know, is the business model of the farm to sell that power or is it to use it and we actually use all of our, our energy that we produce, we actually, part of our goal was to have a solar installation that can power a DC fast charger and have an electric vehicle on on farm. And we so we have all of that. So our, our solar panels are producing power for the dairy, but also utilizing some for a fast charger, that charges electric vehicles as well. Very cool. One other thing that we we think about from a solar installation and either grazing and it’s sort of applicable to whether it’s dairy, or beef, or sheep, or you name it, if you have a stationary system, you know, you you probably won’t have those, the livestock in there for long term effects because otherwise they don’t do damage to the grass and cause all of those issues. So we’re actually developing our own portable solar shade system, so it’s going to be 30 kilowatts, and we’re going to make it portable. So we can, it’s more kind of going off grid power system will have some battery storage on it will be able to charge we have an electric tractor coming. So we’ll be able to charge an electric tractor with it, as well as pull this solar 30 kilowatt system around our pasture so the cows can have shade at all times. So we’re, you know, and we can utilize the, the solar shade for like I said battery storage, powering irrigation systems or fencing systems or, you know, I think the sky’s the limit. So we’re starting to move towards more of a, you know, not not a stationary model of a solar system to see what happens, obviously, you, you know, we’re probably not going to have 200 kilowatts, that is, you know, movable, but from a smaller scale, which might be applicable to some farms. We’re kind of moving in that direction.
Will Fulwider 57:29
We’ll be excited to see how that pans out. That sounds very interesting. Well, Brad, anything that else that you’d like to add before we wrap up here?
Brad Hines 57:38
Sure. You know, what one thing that we’ve also explored and I think some other farmers that we work with here and in Minnesota are exploring is growing crops under there, you know, I think that’s the thing you know, agrivoltaics, it’s not just for dairy cows, you know, you can grow crops. So we’re also exploring oats and wheat and corn and soybeans underneath solar panels. We’re also working with some farmers in southern Minnesota that are growing soybeans under their solar panels. So they’re even higher, you know, some of these people want to drive a combine underneath their solar panels. So I think there’s a lot of uses when you think about agri Voltex. And it’s not just a one size fits all, but we all need to do the same thing. So there’s a lot of ideas out there that that farmers can use, you know, from from cattle to crops, with solar panels. So I think there’s a lot of that stuff happening. And it’s exciting to see where the future might lead us.
Will Fulwider 58:38
Most definitely. That is a perfect segue to our conversation that we’re having with Ohio State and some of the work that they’ve been doing in cropping and solar panels. Well, Brad, thank you so much for coming on the show and having a chat with us and telling us about your research and your experiences with dairy cows and agrivoltaics.
Brad Hines 59:01
Thanks for inviting me. Glad to share our agrivoltaics work with anybody.
JASON FISCHBACH 59:28
Brought to you by the University of Wisconsin Madison Division of Extension.