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Exhibit highlights growing food between solar panels

Aug 22, 2023

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MINNEAPOLIS — Many see the expansion of solar energy in Minnesota as a golden opportunity to help new farmers find spaces to grow vegetables. An exhibit at the State Fair highlights a pilot project in Ramsey, Minnesota aimed at exploring how that can be done.

The growing interest in the dual use of solar installations for food production, also known as agrivoltaics, comes at a time when the federal government is making historic investments in renewable energy in farm country.

"Land is expensive and if you don't come from generations of farming, figuring out how to the capital and how to find land is such a challenge," Sophia Lenarz-Coy, executive director of a hunger solutions nonprofit known as The Food Group, told KARE 11.

"So, what we are so excited about is exploring partnerships with solar companies, because they have land and there’s room between the solar panels to farm."

The pilot project is a joint effort by The Food Group, the Great Plains Institute, Connexus Energy, and US Solar.

"The nice thing about solar arrays is we’re comfortable signing 10-, 15-, 20-year contracts on our sites," Peter Schmitt of US Solar told reporters at a State Fair press conference Friday.

"There’s different shade patterns between the rows of solar panels, one-third in morning sun, one-third in evening sun, we’re figuring out which crops do best in those scenarios."

Minnesota is ahead of the curve when it comes to finding ways to help new farmers who didn't group up around farming, known as emerging farmers, to get started. The state has an office dedicated to emerging farmers and a new task force on the issue.

The federal Inflation Reduction Act has greatly expanded the pool of clean energy grant money available to rural electric cooperatives and individual farmers, according to Clare Sierawski, senior energy counselor with the USDA Rural Development.

"The Inflation Reduction Act included $13 billion dollars for clean energy in rural America. It’s the largest investment since the 1930s in rural electrification," Sierawski explained.

"And it’s a huge opportunity for new income sources for farmers, for better health outcomes, for communities."

The New Era program is aimed at helping rural electric cooperates pay for switching to renewable power sources, something that's harder to do for a coop. There's also grant money available from the Rural Energy for America program for farmers who want to invest in green energy sources.

"If you are an ag producer, a farmer, a rural small business, you can apply for this program and you can put solar panels on your barn, small solar array, or a wind farm up, or whatever it may be, any kind of clean energy," Sierawski explained.

"And we can provide a grant for up to 50 percent for the cost of that project."

Connexus is an electric cooperative that is hosting a project growing pollinator-friendly plants between rows of solar panels. The flowers have attracted bees, butterflies, and birds, according to Rob Davis of Connexus.

"The birds have been coming. Just last year we recorded more than 47,00 different incidences of bird songs from 23 different species!"

Check out all of KARE 11's coverage of the State Fair in our YouTube playlist:

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Check out all of KARE 11's coverage of the State Fair in our YouTube playlist: