Environment

The Future of Agriculture Combined With Renewable Energy Finds Success at Jack’s Solar Garden

Byron Kominek, owner of Jack’s Solar Garden, tills the soil at the farm in Longmont, Colorado. Jack’s Solar Garden is a 1.2-MW, five-acre community solar farm and is the largest agrivoltaics research project in the United States. Photo by Werner Slocum, NREL

A 24-acre family farm purchased by Jack Stingerie in 1972 that grew hay, wheat, and hosted cattle over time has now evolved into a model for how to produce energy and food in tandem.

Researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) InSPIRE project partnered with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Colorado State University, University of Arizona, and father-and-son team Kurt and Byron Kominek to create Jack’s Solar Garden, a successful agrivoltaics project in Longmont, Colorado. Multiple agrivoltaics activities including crop production, pollinator habitat, ecosystem services, and pasture grass for grazing are being researched across the site.

“Jack’s Solar Garden was named after my grandfather, as we wanted this project to do more for our family as well as the community Jack moved us into,” said Byron Kominek, Jack’s Solar Garden owner and manager.

Jack’s Solar Garden is the largest commercially active agrivoltaics system researching crop and vegetation growth under photovoltaic solar panels in the United States. The garden generates enough power for more than 300 homes from 3,276 solar panels (6 ft and 8 ft) that create a 1.2-MW community solar garden. Audubon Rockies, a regional office of the bird protection society, established their largest Habitat Hero pollinator habitat in Colorado around the solar array, while a local nonprofit farming organization, Sprout City Farms, trains young farmers to cultivate crops under the solar panels.

“We couldn’t have built this agrivoltaics system without the support of our community, from the Boulder County government that enabled us to build the solar array with a forward-looking land-use code and clean-energy-centric regulations to the companies and residents who purchase power from us,” Kominek said. “We thoroughly appreciate all those who have contributed to our success and who speak kindly of our efforts.”

By creating the nonprofit Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Center, Jack’s Solar Garden has been able to introduce communities to the future of agrivoltaics by inviting local schools and community groups to tour the farm. So far, over 500 guests have visited Jack’s Solar Garden in 2021 and more than 600 have been reached through off-site presentations. The tours and presentations inspire and teach students and community members how clean energy, local food, and responsible land use management can improve our society.

Since its launch in the fall of 2020, the agrivoltaics site has already logged over 250 volunteer hours and taught 23 K–12 students through three agrivoltaic workshops involving dance and film. Educators from 10 different schools on Colorado’s Front Range have been guided on special teacher tours, and four high school students have been advised on agrivoltaic capstone-project design. Many local government representatives have also visited the garden, including Colorado Secretary of Energy Will Toor and Colorado Secretary of Agriculture Kate Greenberg. The governor of Colorado, Jared Polis, visited the garden to sign legislation that allocated funding to support agrivoltaics research in the state.

“Jack’s Solar Garden provides us the most comprehensive and largest agrivoltaics research site in the nation while also providing other food access and educational benefits to the surrounding community,” said Jordan Macknick, principal investigator for InSPIRE, which stands for Innovative Site Preparation and Impact Reductions on the Environment. “It serves as a model that can be replicated for greater energy security and food security in Colorado and the nation.”

As of early September 2021, Sprout City Farms at Jack’s Solar Garden has already donated more than 1,500 pounds of produce to the local nonprofit organization OUR Center in Longmont. Sprout City Farms works with Jack’s Solar Garden and its research partners to collect data on vegetables produced in preparation for future agricultural activities within the solar array.

Activities at Jack’s Solar Garden are based on research conducted through the InSPIRE project, which utilizes field research sites across the United States to demonstrate opportunities for cost reductions and environmental compatibility of solar energy technologies through low-environmental-impact designs and approaches. Low-impact development strategies and pollinator-friendly solar can provide positive benefits for soil quality, carbon storage, stormwater management, microclimate conditions, and solar efficiencies. Studies in Arizona have shown that agrivoltaics can increase tomato and pepper yields while simultaneously reducing water needs and creating cooler microclimates underneath the panels.

Jack’s Solar Garden will serve as a model for an upcoming project with the city and county of Denver and the Denver Botanic Gardens — and likely many more to come. Byron Kominek, owner and manager of Jack’s Solar Garden, is also participating in the NREL Executive Energy Leadership Academy, where industry and community leaders learn about advanced energy technologies that can help guide their organizations in energy-related decisions and planning.

For more information, visit Jack’s Solar Garden, stay tuned for updates on more agrivoltaics projects, and read more about the InSPIRE project’s research at sites around the country.

Article courtesy of NREL.

 

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