The State of New Jersey has set a very aggressive goal for 100% renewable energy by 2050. According to the 2019 Energy Master Plan, this will require 32,000 megawatts of installed photovoltaic electricity. Successfully meeting the 2050 goal will likely require utilizing both developed and currently undeveloped land (including farmland) for photovoltaic infrastructure.
In June 2021, the New Jersey Legislature passed the Dual-use Solar Act, which establishes the Dual-Use Solar Energy Pilot Program for unpreserved farmland. This program will enable a limited number of farmers to have agrivoltaic systems on their property while the technology is being tested, observed and refined. Dual-use solar energy (also called Agrivoltaics) offers the potential to both create sustainable renewable energy and keep the precious farmland below it productive and profitable. Until recently, very little agriculture could be done on land with solar panels because of the difficulty in using farm equipment around them and the substantial shading that occurs from the panels. Properly designed agrivoltaic systems have the potential to be built high enough that they allow for farm equipment operation below and also relatively uniform ground-level illumination resulting in lower impact on crop productivity.
The New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station received $2M in the 2022 State Budget specifically for building Research and Demonstration Agrivoltaic Systems on their Research Farms. These systems will allow for detailed experimentation and engineering that would not be possible in a commercial setting. Ensuring that both goals of dual use can be consistently met in NJ, is only possible through research and demonstration trials.
The ground-level illumination uniformity critically impacts plant growth rates, and careful design and placement is needed in order to meet crop yield targets. A useful initial assessment can be made using the dual use shading analysis tool developed in Massachusetts, and being adapted for NJ, to compare the effects of PV system design on light distribution at ground level.
The figure below shows arrays with identical panel height (10’) and ground coverage (50%) but using different physical configurations that each yield different electrical output and light distribution patterns.
The analysis shows that fixed-tilt south-facing arrays can reduce crop productivity due to the substantial reduction in light levels below the panels.
This requires further study for New Jersey light conditions in order to better understand the balance of direct and diffuse sunlight needed for good, uniform plant growth.
Agrivoltaics research and development is occurring in many parts of the world where the demographics are similar to New Jersey: high population densities, land values and food prices, as well as strong government incentives for the production of renewable energy. Europe, Japan, China, and some states in the US, have agrivoltaic demonstration and commercialization efforts underway. But while NJ demographics may be similar to other regions of the world where agrivoltaics are being commercialized, our soils, climate, types of agriculture, and food and energy markets differ, making the successful implementation of agrivoltaics in New Jersey uncertain. NJAES is well positioned to take the lead in NJ, and the region, to conduct the applied research necessary to make informed decisions on whether agrivoltaics is right for NJ farmers and the State’s renewable energy goals. NJAES has research farms, crop production experts, controlled environment agriculture experts, soil scientists, animal scientists, life cycle analysis experts, farm economists, social scientists, photovoltaic engineering expertise and the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service that can provide outreach and education.
The Rutgers Agrivoltaics Program has formed a committee of Rutgers/NJAES faculty and staff to design, construct, and conduct research and outreach for agrivoltaics. The current committee members include:
- Dave Specca, Lead, Sustainable Agriculture, Rutgers EcoComplex
- Dunbar Birnie, Solar Design Expert, School of Engineering
- A.J. Both, SEBS and NJAES, Greenhouse Extension Specialist
- Clint Burgher, Cook Campus Animal Farm Manager
- Daniel Gimenez, Soil Scientist, SEBS
- Serpil Guran, Environmental Assessments, Director, Rutgers EcoComplex
- Michael Kornitas, Rutgers University Director of Sustainability and Energy
- Pete Nitzsche, Director of Snyder Farm (Pittstown)
- Dean Polk, Acting Director of RSCREC (Cream Ridge)
- Ethan Schoolman, Human Ecology and Social Science, SEBS
- Kevin Sullivan, Economist, Office of Research Analytics, SEBS
- Dan Ward, Director of RAREC (Bridgeton)
- Mike Westendorf, SEBS and NJAES, Animal Extension Specialist
The committee has developed a list of potential agrivoltaic research projects for consideration, including:
- Impact on yield and quality of vegetables, nursery crops, sod, cranberries, blueberries and grapes
- Impact on pastures and animals (sheep, cows, horses) grazing underneath solar panels
- Opportunities for Controlled Environment Agriculture (greenhouses and high tunnels), including the use of supplemental lighting powered by photovoltaics
- Greenhouse Gas (GHG) based-Life cycle assessment for conventional field production versus crops grown under agrivoltaic systems, including the impact on water consumption and renewable energy generation
- Optimal design of agrivoltaic systems for NJ farms (pole placement and height, panel type and efficiency, panel tilt angle, tracking systems, etc.)
- Economic opportunities and challenges for agrivoltaics in NJ
The committee is also in the process of identifying outside sources of funding available to pay for some of the research. The US DOE and USDA have existing SBIR/STTR grant programs that could fund agrivoltaics. Additionally, private sector photovoltaic businesses have a vested interest in seeing this technology demonstrated and promoted in NJ and there could be opportunities to partner with them.
We believe that research and outreach involving agrivoltaics is urgently needed given the ambitious plans for solar energy in NJ, the potential loss of (prime) farmland when it is covered with solar panels, and the State’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This belief is shared by many of our constituents and we are looking for partnerships and funding to help realize this vision. The committee welcomes a dialogue with all future stakeholders.
Useful links for Agrivoltaics
Farmers Powering Communites: American Farmland Trust Partnership with Edelen Renewables and Arcadia
Examples of Agrivoltaics Systems: March 24th 2021 Presentations
Agrivoltaics Roundtable Discussion May 24th, 2022