Solar Energy & Agriculture: New Factors to Consider

By Colleen Halpenny

As producers look for ways to minimize their environmental footprint, there are many factors to consider before deciding if solar is on your horizon.

Continued growth

Heather MacKenzie, executive director at Solar Alberta, says that farmers are driving the inquiries for new installations.

“We are frequently in calls with farmers about solar systems, as our solar photovoltaic (PV) potential is very high in Alberta. Farmers are business savvy, and exploring what they can do to offset their operation’s energy consumption and reduce their energy bills makes financial sense to them,” she says.

Microgeneration of solar energy refers to the potential for a farm to participate in the energy market by feeding the grid in the summer and saving on their purchase needs during the winter months. MacKenzie explains that as of November 2022, Alberta had a total of 10,407 microgenerators participating in the market.

With much public focus on renewable and conscious living, solar energy has seen an uptake in popularity. The Canadian Renewable Energy Association (CanREA) reports that in 2021, 288 megawatts (MW) of new utility-scale solar energy were commissioned – an annual growth of 13.6 per cent.

This growth is shared by several provinces. Alberta has the largest contribution with 250 MW, and some are from Saskatchewan with 21 MW, Quebec at 9.5 MW, Nova Scotia at 4.8 MW, and Ontario with 0.3 MW.

Energyhub.org has been releasing the solar power guides and rankings of Canadian provinces and territories based on the benefits to property owners who install solar energy systems. The provincial solar rankings and guides are based on several factors such as sunlight levels, solar installation costs, solar financing options and electricity costs.

Based on their ranking for average solar production potential, top provinces are Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba, Quebec and Ontario.

Heather Mackenzie standing next to solar panels
   Heather MacKenzie, Solar Alberta -Heather MacKenzie photo

A total of 14,412 farmers reported in Statistics Canada’s 2021 Census of Agriculture that they were using solar energy of various forms, including solar panels, solar heating equipment, solar fencing systems, and solar water pumps.

MacKenzie is thrilled with the growth: “Even with global supply chain issues and inflation, producers are seeing the value of going solar.

“Alberta’s first net-zero farm was launched in 2015. We have a long history of seeing farmers adopt solar and working towards having a net-zero electricity impact.”

Agrivoltaics

As Jim MacDougall points out, ground-mounted solar projects are commonly constructed in rural areas due to the abundance of flat land. But don’t assume this land is now unusable for farming, says MacDougall.

The president and founder of Compass Renewable Energy Consulting in Toronto explains that the emergence of agrivoltaics – the co-development of agriculture and solar PV within the same land space – is providing mutually beneficial outcomes.

While producing energy, land can also be used to sustain grazing animals, beekeeping, some crops and vegetables, and overall improved soil health.

MacDougall highlights the work being done at the Arnprior Solar Project, located just west of Ottawa. The project provides 23.4 MW of sustainable energy, meeting the peak energy demands of some 7,000 homes. It combines three unique agrivoltaic practices alongside the panels: a monarch butterfly conservation project, a bee and honey project comprising five hives (each producing roughly 60 jars of honey a year), and a grazing natural weed abatement pilot project.

The Arnprior project features some 50 grazing sheep, saving the solar owners around $30,000 per year on maintaining weed growth. The herder loaning his flock of sheep also benefits by having a cost-free source of food for his animals.

MacKenzie also cites the positive history that solar panels and sheep have had and is excited about the prospects for expanding agrivoltaic partnerships.

“We have prepared solar siting recommendations for solar project developers to use in thinking about what land to develop solar on. For ground-mounted solar, in addition to recommendations of Indigenous consultation, general community consultation, and wire service provider consultation, we also recommend developers consider the impacts on the broader ecosystem and on good farmland in particular.

“When locating solar on farmland, we recommend co-locating solar with crops and/or livestock. When that is not possible, some innovative project developers, like the Métis Nation of Alberta, have thought of ways to raise their fencing to allow for the solar array to better coexist with the broader ecosystem,” she says.

Incentives & challenges

Frank Jopp, owner of Auenland Farms in Mount Pisgah, N.B., installed that province’s first utility grade solar farm in 2017.

“I was looking for a way in which I could diversify the farm, and this venture allowed me to enter into a contract with New Brunswick Power to supply them. We had this strip of yard that was steep and narrow – not suitable for anything. So, this was the perfect location to install the panels. We added value to this previously unused piece of land.

Solar Panels at Auenland Farms
   Some 14,412 farmers report that they are using solar energy of various forms. Auenland Farms is pictured above. -Smart Energy Company photo

“It was a learning curve our first year, but after working with the systems, we liked them so much we installed the behind-the-meter panels on the roof of one of our barns. Those are really trouble-free,” he says.

Solar Alberta’s MacKenzie notes the ease of roof-mounted panels for behind-the-meter production, saying that “it’s very easy once you make the choice to go solar; the whole process can be wrapped up in a couple of months. Mounting to roofs, there’s much less scrutiny over the installations and application process than those larger producers.”

Jopp knows that meeting government standards and advanced electrical inspections can be overwhelming. “There’s a lot of red tape, but being able to diversify and make a positive impact was worth the extra work.”

Rules which limit production can also be challenging to understand, says MacKenzie.

“The issue that comes up most during our consultations is the microgeneration regulations. It’s a beautiful and frustrating regulation for farmers in our province. It allows you to participate in the energy market, but only allows you to produce as much as you consume, so you can’t size your system to generate profits. Definitely a hard conversation to have.”

The microgeneration threshold for Alberta reaches up to 5 MW, meaning an increased up-front investment to be able to produce that secondary income stream. These thresholds are provincially mandated, tying in with the main energy suppliers to manage the markets.

“For us, there is a cap of 25 per cent of your total amp usage. To cover the complete needs of the farm we would have needed a 400-amp entrance, so installing 100 amps made the investment worthwhile for us as we expanded,” Jopp says.

Sara Hastings-Simon, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Calgary, is excited with the growth the sector has seen in the last decade, even with limited incentives.

“There are emerging grants and subsidies to assist with new microgeneration solar installations, but what we’ve seen in the growth and development of utility scale solar is happening in the absence of any subsidies, because economically, it’s valuable to all participating.

“So, when you see those large industries investing into the market, you know it’s a place where they see the long-term value,” she says.

The Canada Greener Homes Grant provides funding to assist with energy-efficient upgrades. Currently available through the national initiative are grants from $125 to $5,000 for eligible home retrofits, up to $600 toward total costs of pre- and post-retrofit EnerGuide evaluations, and interest-free loans from $5,000 to $40,000 with repayment terms of 10 years to help undertake major home renovations.

As outlined in their 2050 vision, Powering Canada’s Journey to Net-Zero, CanREA has indicated the need to install more than 5,000 MW of new wind and solar energy annually for the next 30 years to meet the commitment of zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Initial cost of production when Jopp installed was around the $3 per KW, which was prior to tax incentives. He is excited with the additional incentives that have come forth since to expand this market for fellow farmers but knows there's still a long way to go.

“It’s hard to listen to the industry push for the net-zero ideal when our input costs are so high, and government incentives and regulations aren’t working together with farmers to achieve success on a larger scale.

“What I think could be so beneficial would be farmers of all industries being able to participate, being streamlined as independent producers supplying the grid. Everyone has some land which isn’t able to be used for production or, like ours, just cutting grass for maintenance, but we couldn’t even park equipment on it. Knowing that you could cut your costs, potentially add additional income, and help the environment – those are the win-win situations we all want,” says Jopp.

For MacKenzie, it’s all about balance for the best long-term results.

“We are always trying to reduce what we call ‘green-on-green’ controversy. We can promote food production and solar at the same time. Both are essential, and it doesn’t have to be an either-or conversation.” BF

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