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A new vision for farming: Chickens, sheep, and ... solar panels


Agriculture and the solar power industry have at times been at odds, competing for the landscape. But some farmers and developers are finding that the two can be complementary.

Chickens graze near solar panels at Geneva peeps, a community egg cooperative in Geneva, New York. Geneva peeps is one of the many experiments in agrivoltaics, or co-locating solar panels and food production.

When Jackie Augustine opens a chicken coop door one brisk spring morning in upstate New York, the hens bolt out like windup toys. Still, as their faint barnyard scent testifies, they aren’t battery-powered but very much alive.

These are “solar chickens.” At this local community egg cooperative, Geneva Peeps, the birds live with solar power all around them. Their hen house is built under photovoltaic panels, and even outside, they’ll spend time underneath them, protected from sun, rain, and hawks.

Geneva Peeps is one of the many experiments in agrivoltaics, or co-locating solar panels and food production, being undertaken around the United States. The practice had already been happening in countries like the United Kingdom and Uruguay. Over the past few years, more pilot programs have been set up in states like New York. And with photovoltaic capacity projected to more than double (again) over the next five years, some developers are exploring whether agrivoltaics may ease concerns about farmland being given over to solar production.

“You’re seeing farmers sell off land and transition it to solar,” says Greg Barron-Gafford, an associate professor at the University of Arizona who studies the impacts of large-scale land-use change. “Our hope is this could allow us to keep more food production in areas that need energy production.”

Finding the right pairing

Agrivoltaics doesn’t just include chickens. Other livestock also can roam around solar panels, and some researchers are experimenting with planting crops, too.

Animals that graze around solar fields offer several benefits, proponents of agrivoltaics say. Not only does their manure enrich the soil, their munching keeps plants from growing too tall and shading the panels. Another win: They lower vegetation maintenance costs, reducing the need for lawn mowers or landscapers.

Founder Jeff Henderson holds a chicken at Geneva Peeps, a community egg cooperative in Geneva, New York. Geneva Peeps is one of the many experiments in agrivoltaics, or co-locating solar panels and food production.

Pilot agrivoltaic programs have tried many grazers – with varying success. The chickens at Geneva Peeps, for example, aren’t grazing powerhouses. Founder Jeff Henderson admits that he still has to fire up the lawn mower sometimes.

When solar panels are elevated for them to roam beneath, cows do better, as shown in a University of Massachusetts pilot. But the higher materials cost of raising panels has kept “solar cattle” from taking hold yet. Goats have been tried, too, but they sometimes jump on panels and chew wires.

The winner among livestock so far has been calm, eat-anything-and-everything sheep. In fact, most of the members of the American Solar Grazing Association, founded in 2017, are shepherds. (Honeybees can be part of the mix with sheep, too.)

Researchers, like Dr. Barron-Gafford at the University of Arizona, are also studying how well crops grow under panels.

Dr. Barron-Gafford noticed that in the desert, saguaro cactuses spend their first 10 to 15 years growing in the shade of mesquite trees. Surmising that shade from solar panels could benefit crops, too, he has studied how agrivoltaic setups affected food yields and water usage in dryland areas. Among his findings: Chiltepin pepper plants yielded three times as much fruit, and tomatoes twice as much, under photovoltaic panels. They required less irrigation, and temperatures under panels where crops were growing were lower, too.

“You’re seeing more and more solar installations out in rural areas,” Dr. Barron-Gafford says. “We’re seeing here that putting solar overhead can provide a consistent energy source, can reduce the water you need to use, and that food is giving back to your solar by helping keep it cool [through transpiration].”

Seeking common ground

Still, tensions remain between solar and agriculture. Farmers who lease the land they grow crops on often worry about their landlords renting it out to someone else, including solar farms. And rural residents may want to see their area hold onto its farming heritage. A California developer, Cypress Creek Renewables, riled up rural New York in 2016 when it mass-mailed farmers seeking leases on 20-plus acre fields.

 Lewis Fox, co-founder of the American Solar Grazing Association, has found that involving animals helps solar skeptics lower their defenses. He’ll bring lambs to a project open house and find locals open up a bit more. Often, he says, they find it reassuring that local land can stay in agriculture, even if solar is added.

“Solar in general is unfamiliar to people, and if you hear there’s a large development coming to your town, people naturally get defensive, a little suspicious,” Mr. Fox says. “There’s support, but also a lot of concern. Once people come out to a site and see it being grazed, it kind of clicks. A well-managed grazing program on a site is very productive. It’s not just throwing a few sheep out and letting them go wherever for a season. We can raise a lot of meat on an acre of raised panels. It’s a serious form of agriculture.”

Still, Mr. Fox has seen friends in the dairy industry lose leased land. Agrivoltaics can’t ease all those tensions, he concedes. “I don’t think setting up grazing contracts is going to paper over issues of people losing leased land,” he says. “It’s definitely important that developers are good actors working in ethical ways.”

Another key to being received better, some solar developers say, could be not to “co-locate” solar and agriculture on the exact same parcels of land. “Instead of 100 acres of prime farmland, we should work with four farmers and use 25 acres of marginal farmland each,” suggests Bill Jordan, founder and CEO of Jordan Energy & Food Enterprises LLC, an Albany-based company that specializes in on-farm photovoltaic placement.

Mr. Jordan argues that solar can actually help save farms more easily if panels are situated on the property’s wetter, hillier farmland, or on roofs. “There’s a lot of solar going in – it could push farmers out of farming, or diversify the family farm,” he says.

First came the chickens

Mr. Henderson didn’t know about agrivoltaics when he founded Geneva Peeps in 2015. His goal was simply to help local families raise chickens. Backyard coops aren’t allowed in the Finger Lakes town of Geneva, New York, but he found industrial-zoned land where they’d be permitted.

Forty families now share weekly chicken-care shifts of 10 to 15 minutes. Ms. Augustine pedals over for her shift, and with her bike helmet still on, checks the hens’ food and water. In return, she and fellow members get a dozen or more eggs at a time.

The year after launching, Mr. Henderson installed 44 kilowatts’ worth of solar panels, both powering the operation and producing excess for the grid through net metering. There wasn’t enough room on the chicken coops to install rooftop panels, but he did have more than an acre of land – more than 180 egg-layers really needed. Mr. Henderson wasn’t aware of any similar farms combining solar and chickens, but he figured the project could be a local sustainability model.

“We knew they could all coexist together because there’s no reason you can’t have solar panels and chickens,” Mr. Henderson says. “One of the hopes is this will give people an idea of a way you could do it.”

William Jordan, CEO of Jordan Energy & Food Enterprises, LLC was selected to participate in the Energy Industry Roundtable hosted by law firm Hodgson Russ and the Albany Business Review.

Bill Jordan, CEO of Jordan Energy & Food Enterprises, LLC and Founder of the Let's Share the Sun Foundation, was selected to participate in CNN's Climate Crisis Town Hall on Wednesday, September 4, 2019 hosted by Chris Cuomo.

This prime time special event focused on the climate crisis, and involved a Q&A session with Democratic Presidential Candidates.

Of those who applied to participate, Bill was invited to the CNN New York City studios after he submitted questions to ACE, Alliance for Clean Energy New York. Bill's question to Mayor Peter Buttigieg was selected to be asked during the Town Hall event. Please see the following video.

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“I think the turning point is upon us,” he says."

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Next to the wastewater treatment plant in the small town of Beacon Falls, Connecticut, lies a 2-acre plot of surplus land. Previously used to store soil and gravel for the town garage, the property is now the site of a solar brightfield capable of generating 351.8 kW-DC of electricity.

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Solar Panels Could Save Regional Food Bank $500,000 Over Time

By Terry Stackhouse Updated Thursday, April 20, 2017 at 05:54 PM CDT

The Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York recently installed hundreds of solar panels on top of its Albany warehouse. The move is expected to save more than $500,000 over the next 25 years.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority pitched in $350,000 for the project. This comes as the facility undergoes an expansion worth more than $2 million.

“The less we spent on energy, the more we have available to invest in acquiring more food and distributing that food out to our member agencies,” said Mark Quandt, executive director of the food bank.

William Jordan, CEO of Jordan Energy and Food Enterprises, provided consulting and helped to secure state funding.

“So a lot of extra dollars will be able to be used to address the core mission of the food bank: feeding hungry people,” said Jordan.

The panels are expected to generate about 60 percent of the electricity used at the facility, along with another warehouse in the Hudson Valley.


NYSERDA and Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York Announce Completion of Solar Installations Saving Food Bank $520,000 Over a 25-Year Period.

Projects Help Food Bank Facilities in Albany and Cornwall-on-Hudson Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 7,600 tons and Support New York State’s Goals to Cut Statewide Emissions 40% by 2030 from 1990 Levels.

April 18, 2017

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York today announced that two newly completed solar installations atop the Food Bank’s warehouse facilities in Albany and the Village of Cornwall-on-Hudson, in Orange County, will lead to estimated savings of approximately $520,000 over a 25-year power purchase agreement (PPA) and elimination of approximately 7,600 tons of greenhouse gas emissions, or the equivalent of taking 58 cars off the road during that period. The installations have also been a catalyst for increasing awareness of opportunities available to the Food Bank to lower its utility bills through changes to its electricity-use habits.

NY-Sun, a statewide program of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, supported the two solar projects with a $353,000 grant from NYSERDA, offsetting a portion of the nearly $2 million cost. Expanded solar power supplies is a key facet of the Governor’s comprehensive energy strategy—Reforming the Energy Vision (REV)—to build a cleaner, more resilient and affordable energy system for all New Yorkers. REV supports widespread deployment of clean renewable power generation, and giving electricity customers new opportunities in determining how their electricity is generated and for lowering their utility bills.

The state’s Clean Energy Standard calls for 50 percent of the electricity in New York to come from renewable resources by 2030. Distributed generation facilities like those at the Regional Food Bank, involving electricity production close to end users of power, will be an essential element to success in meeting the State’s goals, including reducing statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent, from 1990 levels.

“Congratulations to the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York for becoming another example of the positive benefits that solar energy can reap for businesses under Governor Cuomo’s NY-Sun initiative” said John B. Rhodes, President and CEO, NYSERDA. “These projects will help the state combat greenhouse gases while reducing the Food Bank’s energy bills, thereby freeing up additional funds for the essential services this organization offers to the public.”

“We are always looking for ways to reduce our operating expenses so we can maximize the impact of our core mission—to alleviate hunger and prevent food waste,” said Mark Quandt, Executive Director of the Food Bank. “As we strive to be good stewards of the resources our community so generously provides, switching to clean solar power is closely aligned with our principles.”

The installations at the two Regional Food Bank facilities are comprised of a total of 2,673 solar panels and expected to combine for approximately 973,000 kilowatt-hours of annual generation, to meet approximately 60 percent of the facilities’ electricity needs. That amount of solar power would be equal to meeting the electricity requirements of 135 average-sized homes.

A significant portion of the Food Bank’s utility bills stems from the energy-intensive refrigeration that its warehouse facilities rely upon for the large donations of food that it collects for the disadvantaged. The solar installations will lessen those costs in replacing higher priced electricity from the power grid and are leading to even greater savings by allowing the Food Bank warehouses to stagger the recharging schedule for their battery-powered forklifts. In the past, the warehouses did all the recharging of this equipment at one time, resulting in higher demand charges on their electric bills.

“The solar projects are providing the Regional Food Bank with more options in its warehouse operations,” said Bill Jordan, CEO of Jordan Energy & Food Enterprises, a Troy, N.Y., energy consulting and development company, which worked closely with the Food Bank in identifying financing and construction partners while customizing analytical software for the warehouses’ harnessing of on-site solar power. “We’ve worked with the Food Bank for over six years to install solar at the right time, and the launch of the NY-Sun program led us to insist this was the right time.”

The Regional Food Bank’s solar installations are located at 965 Albany Shaker Road in Albany, and 195 Hudson Street in Cornwall-on-Hudson.

Dynamic Energy, a New York solar developer with offices in Saratoga Springs, designed and built the two solar projects, completing them in less than six months.

At the end of the 25-year PPA, the ownership of the solar installations will be transferred to the Regional Food Bank, at which point the electricity from the solar panels will be free, for further cost savings on the Food Bank’s overall electricity bills.

Under NY-Sun, New York State has greatly advanced its amount of state-supported solar energy. Since December 2011, solar growth has increased nearly 800 percent, with nearly 65,000 projects installed through December 2016. As of the end of the year, the projects amounted to nearly 744 megawatts of generating capacity.

New York now has more than 8,000 people engaged in solar jobs in various parts of the state.