Planning and zoning approves site plan for solar company

This solar farm located outside Coolidge is similar to other solar projects being proposed. The Coolidge Planning and Zoning Commission approved the site plan for Orsted last month with a few changes that will be taken back to the company’s team to discuss.

COOLIDGE — Local farmers are highly skeptical of the success of agrivoltaics, in which crops are planted underneath solar panels.

With solar energy generation becoming an increasingly profitable use for cropland, especially around Coolidge, concerns have been expressed that solar farms will displace food and fiber production.

A four-year project titled “Sustainably Colocating Agricultural and Photovoltaic Electricity Systems,” or SCAPES, is studying this under the direction of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Recently in Coolidge, multiple solar projects have advanced, although one has been put on hold by developers amid controversy.

Advocates of co-locating agriculture and solar photovoltaic panels say it allows crop production, production of renewable energy, lower water use and increased farm profitability.

Farmers would need assistance, however, in determining the crops and locations best suited for agrivoltaic systems as well as the solar panel design and placement that maintain or increase crop yields.

Coolidge City Manager Rick Miller said he has heard about agrivoltaics but has not heard of anyone in the community who is planting crops in the ground underneath solar panels.

A new $10 million grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture in the U.S Department of Agriculture will allow researchers to study how to best optimize design for agrivoltaic systems in a variety of land types and climate scenarios.

Coolidge farmer Noah Hiscox said that with the exception of wheat, no other crops could be planted in the Arizona desert under solar panels where there is a shortage of water.

“In my opinion there is no way,” Hiscox said. “How would you irrigate and harvest the crops? You can’t plant something with no water.”

Hiscox conceded this could be possible in cooler climates but not in hot deserts, like in Arizona.

“We don’t have dry farming,” he said. “Could they plant something in Illinois?” Hiscox asked. “I don’t know, maybe.”

He reiterated there would be no way to irrigate and harvest crops underneath solar panels.

“It makes no common sense in Arizona,” he said.

Peter Everhart, another local farmer, said some small crops could possibly be planted under solar panels but nothing like alfalfa or corn.

Hiscox said even if agrivoltaics did work in planting and harvesting crops, solar farms leasing the agricultural land would be hesitant in allowing crops to be planted.

The lead institution on a four-year project titled “Sustainably Colocating Agricultural and Photovoltaic Electricity Systems,” or SCAPES, is the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Partner institutes include the University of Arizona, Colorado State University, Auburn University, the University of Illinois Chicago and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The project is funded through the Agriculture and Food Research Institute Sustainable Agriculture Systems program. The University of Arizona will receive $1.725 million of the grant funding.