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Renewable Energy

Maine Agrivoltaic Farm Harnesses The Sun For Blueberries

A blueberry farm in Maine is now a proving ground for an agrivoltaic project designed to successfully cultivate fruit within a solar array. Agrivoltaic projects split the use of the same land between crop cultivation and solar panels – with both sharing the light to grow and produce energy. This dual-use can be very beneficial for blueberry farmers, allowing them to expand their economic opportunities while producing sustainable solar energy for others. Recently, Boston-based BlueWave Solar sold a 10-acre, 4.2-megawatt solar project on a blueberry farm in Rockport to solar power producer Navisun. It will be the very first project of its kind in Maine, with five acres set to grow blueberries while the remaining land harnesses the sun. The farm will be studied carefully with hopes it will revolutionize sustainable blueberry farming.

Images courtesy of Bluewave Press

BlueWave has been a part of the agrivoltaic community in Maine for more than a decade, working to combine farm fields and solar panels in a way that benefits the crops, farmers, and the community. The project has been a state-wide effort, with blueberry growers and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension now at the helm to monitor and study it. The goal is to develop a set of best practices for solar agriculture projects that can be used for generations of wild blueberry farms. Since blueberries can be fragile due to their shallow root systems, the research is vitally important. The Rockport project will use custom equipment between the crop rows – the equipment, while still in the testing phase, could enable many other small blueberry fields to tap into solar power.

“The potential for this project to pave the way in providing farmers with alternative income streams while still producing the iconic Maine wild blueberry is exciting and we’re thrilled to be a part of it,” said Lily Calderwood, Wild Blueberry Specialist for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “We will be closely monitoring soil quality and moisture in addition to crop production throughout the course of our work in hopes of ultimately creating a new playbook for today’s wild blueberry farmer.”

September 25, 2020 – Byron Kominek, owner of Jack’s Solar Garden in Longmont, Colo., drives a tractor away following a kickoff event for the farm. Jack’s is one of 30 agrivoltaics research sites being studied by the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis (JISEA) research partners at NREL and Colorado State University as part of the Innovative Site Preparation and Impact Reductions on the Environment (InSPIRE) project. (Photo by Werner Slocum / NREL)

If all goes as planned, this type of agrivoltaic setup will provide additional income for farmers without negatively affecting the crop. In fact, the projects may provide a way to better manage the climate extremes that made blueberry farming difficult in 2020 due to a late frost and low rainfall in parts of the state (plus labor shortages caused by the pandemic). The six-year goal at Rockport is to see whether the plants can recover and get back to their previously high yield. If successful, it will underscore how going green equals more money in the bank for farmers.

“I’m hopeful that this effort will help enhance crop production and our ability to work the land for years to come,” said Paul Sweetland, the farmer at the Rockport farm. “Beyond the benefits to the land, I’m happy to be a part of a project that’s producing clean energy for those around us.”

That clean energy passes along massive savings to the community in the form of lower electric and heating bills.

“Projects like this are great examples of how research, innovation, and partnerships are driving Maine’s clean energy economy,” said Dan Burgess, Director of the Governor’s Energy Office. “By complementing existing agricultural practices, especially Maine’s iconic wild blueberry industry, this project shows how renewable energy can help support our state’s heritage industries, expand our clean energy generation, and create new economic opportunities across Maine.”

With nearly 400 blueberry farmers in Maine – whose farms cover more than 36,000 acres – the move to agrivoltaic can truly change the way farming is done in the state. The state has some of the most ambitious green plans and greenhouse gas reduction targets nationwide, and its important farmers believe in these opportunities.

“People know about the multigenerational farming families who have invested in their blueberry farms for generations and deserve leaders who understand the economic and cultural importance of their hard work and their livelihoods,” said Spencer Thibodeau, a senior political advisor in Maine.

Thibodeau is excited by the opportunity to revitalize the blueberry farms, noting that the former administration’s trade war with China virtually eliminated the fruit’s export. The industry has also been left out of many previous subsidies, and – between the export problems and last year’s climate shifts – needs support. The agrivoltaic project at Rockport may be the solution growers have been looking for: a perfect way to bring the crop back and keep farmers economically sound while creating clean, sustainable, and affordable energy for communities across the state.

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