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Farming food and energy on the same land

Willow Solar Farm
Courtesty IPP
Renewable IPP 1.2 Megawatt Solar Farm in Willow, Alaska. Renewable IPP is building another array in Houston, Alaska that will be the site of Agrivoltaics research.

A project combining solar energy and food production is scheduled to launch next year. University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers will test the concept during Alaska’s short but intense summer.

Alaska’s short but intense summers are terrific for growing vegetables and hay, and are also great opportunities for solar energy production. Putting those two things together on one plot of land is called “Agrivoltaics.”

“As we're looking at an agricultural expansion in the north, um, we're looking at other opportunities to develop a sustainable food system,” Gannon said.

That’s Research Assistant Professor Glenna Gannon with the Institute of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Extension. Gannon points to Lower 48 studies that show some crops thrive when mixed with solar panels.

“And so here it might be a little less intuitive, but that is our desire to evaluate what an agrivoltaic system in, in the state of Alaska looks like,” Gannon said.

The plan is to monitor the performance of crops and photovoltaic cells on a plot of land in Houston, Alaska. Gannon is working with another ag researcher, Jessie Young-Robertson. But the research is funded by a grant from the Department of Energy. Energy scientist, Chris Pike with UAF’s Alaska Center for Energy and Power, or ACEP, is the lead on the project.

“So, we're using a portion of this array to test a variety of crops so that we can look at how those crops affect the solar production and then how the solar panels affect the crop production,” Pike said.

The a new 8.5-megawatt solar photovoltaic array is being installed by a company called Renewable IPP. They just built a large solar operation in nearby Willow, Alaska. But according to ACEP, the one in Houston will be the biggest solar installation in the state.

While they monitor energy production, they will also monitor the physiology of four crops important to Alaska.

“We’re looking at floriculture, or flowers, in this case, peonies, because of the, um, export nature of the peony market in Alaska. We're looking at forages -- that is one of our largest agricultural crops in the state. Vegetable and row crops, that is because, well, we all need to eat! And then native berries -- we have both lowbush cranberries and blueberries located on this parcel.”

Gannon says Student farm trainees from Alaska Pacific University will also work the project. Pike says data from the project will help development of similar systems around the world.

“If you can do something like this in a challenging place like Alaska, then it speaks well in how these systems are gonna perform in other locations,” Pike said.

Construction is expected to be completed, and the first year’s crops planted this summer.

Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.