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UMass Amherst Study to Assess Impact of Dual-use Solar-agriculture Installations

AMHERST — The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Solar Energy Technology Office announced that a team led by Dwayne Breger, extension professor at UMass 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 nonprofit farmland organization.

“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,” said Breger, who is also director of UMass Clean Energy Extension. “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.

“Right now,” he went on, “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 Department of Agricultural Resources and the Department of Energy Resources, 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, noted that “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, other vegetables and fruit, hay, and grazing.

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 said.

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 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 noted 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.

 

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