Right by Connexus Energy's headquarters in Ramsey is a first of its kind: a commercial honey operation, fed by pollinator gardens under an acre of solar panels.
It's an example of a new field called agrivoltaics — something clean-energy advocates say is essential for the country to increase the amount of energy coming from the sun from 3% to 20% by 2050.
The idea is to place the solar plants of the future in working farmland, generating energy and providing another income stream to farmers. So far, the field is in its infancy, but more projects are taking off in Minnesota and across the Midwest — by utilities, universities and privately owned businesses.
For six years, researchers at the West Central Research and Outreach Center at the University of Minnesota, Morris, have been investigating the possible benefits of using solar panels as shade for cows.
Traditional solar installations take farmland out of commission, sparking opposition. Nearly one-third of the counties in Indiana have ordinances restricting, if not prohibiting, renewable projects — mainly protesting interest in putting solar panels on farmland. Farther south, a Louisiana parish recently approved a commercial solar moratorium in an area that's home to both dense petrochemical industry and sugarcane fields.
Yet advocates believe keeping the farmland in use might be the answer.
"We have sunlight and in my opinion, there are a lot of solar systems going up in Minnesota and probably taking up valuable farmland," said Bradley Heins, a professor at the university's outreach center. "People don't like that. Can we still utilize solar energy and not take away the farmland?"
Solar to honey to beer
In 2014, leaders at Connexus Energy, one of Minnesota's largest electric cooperatives, decided to convert the acre of land in Ramsey, previously set aside for possible office expansion, into an area for solar panel systems.
The initial design of the system called for gravel to be placed beneath the solar panels, but input from a co-op member steered Connexus leaders toward installing low growing, high performance meadows, said the utility's spokesman, Rob Davis.
The pollinator-friendly meadow, he said, not only provided an aesthetic benefit to the utility's headquarters, it increased organic materials in the ground with rainwater rolling off panels into the soil, filling the aquifer just below the surface.
"From a stewardship perspective, increasing the organic matter in the soil felt like the right thing in the long term, rather than compacting it with gravel," Davis said.
Connexus Energy has since constructed five pollinator friendly solar projects spanning a total of 120 acres in Minnesota, mostly in the north-central region.
In a first-of-its-kind partnership, the utility partnered with Bare Honey to commercialize the meadows. The two paired with Invictus Brewing in Blaine this year to create a honey-infused beer.
Otter Tail and Xcel also have pollinator projects in the works, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. So does Aveda. In eastern McLeod County, Denver-based SunShare Community Solar Garden is partnering with the owner of 20 acres in Plato and other organizations including TangleTown Gardens in Minneapolis to develop a solar farm that will include vegetable crops.
At the University of Minnesota, Morris, research aims to determine how controlling body heat temperatures of dairy cows affects milk, fat and protein production in the long term, as well as the animal's well-being while reducing the carbon footprint of dairy farmers.
Researchers are also developing the concept of a portable solar shade system that can be wheeled around a field to provide shade as cows move in the summer, or protection from harsh winds in the winter, said Heins. Energy from the solar panels could, for example, be converted into battery storage to power electric tractors.
They also are formulating designs of different grasses and crop systems that could survive under solar panels, said Heins, who believes Minnesota's agriculture industry is ripe for dual-purpose solar farms.
Farmland key to solar strategy
The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that by the year 2050 — when the Paris Climate Accords say the world must reach net-zero carbon emissions to avert further climate catastrophe — solar generation will account for 20% of net electricity generation in the U.S., up from 3% in 2020.
The Biden administration is investing to get to that point, including billions of dollars under the Inflation Reduction Act for solar production and investment tax credits that some analyses predict will kickstart massive growth in the sector.
A 2021 Department of Energy report concluded that by 2050, 9.5 million acres of land, or 0.5% of the country's surface area, would be required for solar projects to meet the goals.
That means farmland, especially in the Midwest, is key to meeting the goal. There needs to be localized buildout so that utilities and consumers can reap the economic and reliability benefits of renewables close to home, said Mitch Tuinstra, a professor of plant breeding and genetics at Purdue University. He studies solar arrays on the university's research field a few miles off campus in West Lafayette, Ind.
Farmland is well suited for solar development of all kinds, for the same reasons it's good for growing crops – it's largely flat, drains well and gets lots of sun. Grazing land for animals like sheep also could be a good fit for solar.
"We want to see if we can devise systems that have minimal losses in terms of crop productivity, while maximizing their electricity output," Tuinstra said.
Moreover, he said, researchers want to see how the co-location strategy could be a salve to a growing strain between solar and farming in the Corn Belt — where residents and towns are pushing back on what they see as industrialization in rural communities.
Pushback from communities
For some residents in areas where farmland is being eyed for this kind of conversion, solar is viewed as an eyesore and a threat to crops and the agrarian character of their communities.
In late August, the corn surrounding the Palo Community Center in Palo, Iowa, was more than 6 feet tall, intermingled on several farms with big signs with a red X through the words "industrial solar."
At the community center, residents waited to hear the fate of a proposed 200-megawatt traditional solar installation that would be sited on agricultural land near town. The project was approved the next week.
Some opponents were skeptical it would make a difference if active farmland were beneath the installations.
"I doubt it very seriously," said Robert Little, a 74-year-old electrician. He worked on farms his whole life and comes from a farm family. Agrivoltaics could put those generational practices in jeopardy, he said.
"The biggest concern would be old family traditions," Little said. "And the other conflict is that I don't think it could ever work."
Doug Hanover, a 62-year-old carpenter who started working on farms as a teenager, is equally skeptical. "I'd want to see it proven."
'A different mindset'
Researchers in Minnesota, Indiana and elsewhere are working on that proof and possible new variations of seeds that would work better under the panels.
Midwest Agrivoltaic Systems and its CEO Andrew Poor are doing their own research on developing cost-effective solar panel substructures — known as racking — that stand taller and farther apart than normal arrays, enough to accommodate row crops and farm equipment.
This need for additional materials and special designs is one reason that, anecdotally, Poor said agrivoltaics tend to cost more than traditional arrays.
But there is no "average" cost for agrivoltaics yet, Poor said, because very few large-scale projects have been completed in the U.S. And now, rising demand and limited availability of solar panels themselves have driven prices up as well, said Poor.
"It's the Catch-22," Poor said. "I'm always looking for funding."
Includes reporting by Sarah Bowman of the Indianapolis Star; Brittney J. Miller of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Joshua Rosenberg, the Lens in New Orleans. This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and funded by the Walton Family Foundation.