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Researchers aim to figure out how to harvest food and electricity off the same land


America needs more renewable energy, and of course, it needs food. Sometimes those two needs compete when solar panels fan out over productive soil. But as KCUR's Frank Morris reports, researchers are looking for ways to get calories and kilowatts from the same land.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Across the river from an old coal-fired power plant near Lawrence, Kan., a stiff breeze sweeps over farm fields, stretching out toward distant hills. Scott Thellman, a farmer who grows a mix of organic and conventional crops nearby, loves this soil.

SCOTT THELLMAN: It's the best. It's absolutely the best our county and, frankly, our region has. Plants are really able to thrive here.

MORRIS: It also happens to be a very convenient place to build a solar farm - flat and close to big transmission lines. Plans are to fence off 1,100 acres and panel over most of it. Thellman hates losing land that's so well-suited to crop production. But 4 hours to the north in Ames, Iowa, researchers are trying to figure out how to harvest food and electricity off the same land - something called agrovoltaics.

MATT ONEAL: So it's still a construction site.

MORRIS: Matt O'Neal, an entomology professor at Iowa State University, is opening the gate to what was recently a cornfield, a 10-acre plot that could help put the farm back in solar farm.

ONEAL: It's a solar farm. We're producing electricity. It's enough for 200 homes, but it's also a site for experiments.

MORRIS: This small solar farm was specially built to see how plants grow under different solar panel configurations. So some are unusually tall, some are normal height, some tilt to follow the sun, some don't. None of them are far enough apart to accommodate the huge machines that most farmers around here use to grow corn and soybeans. So, O'Neal wants to see how bees and native flowering plants do here. Ajay Nair, incoming chair of the horticultural department, is trying to grow specialty crops.

AJAY NAIR: We are primarily focusing on fruits and vegetable crops. And when we talk about fruits and vegetables, these crops or these plants love full sun. The first thing that strikes anybody is like, oh, is there enough light for the plants to grow, which is a valid question.

MORRIS: It's not the only one. Solar panels change the growing environment under them, making it cooler, less breezy, more humid. Nair is planting several different crops in various spots under and around the panels, starting with one of his favorites, little shoots of broccoli, fresh from the greenhouse.

This is some very important broccoli.

NAIR: (Laughter) This will be the solar broccoli. Yeah, but we are looking forward to this experiment.

MORRIS: Researchers here are learning not just how solar panels affect plants, but how plants affect the panels. Anne Kimber directs the Electric Power Research Center at Iowa State, and she thinks that crops may boost efficiency.

ANNE KIMBER: Because we're going to be cooling the arrays in the heat of the summer by evaporative cooling from the crops growing beneath them. And if you can cool down the arrays, you'll get greater solar production. Isn't that great?

MORRIS: Kimber says we're going to need all the solar power we can get. After all, we're shutting down coal-fired plants. At the same time, we're electrifying everything from transportation to heating, cooking. Matt O'Neal says much of that new power will come from utility-scale solar.

ONEAL: So are you going to have solar panels in farmland? Yes. Does that mean you can't farm? No. Are you going to be able to farm the way you used to? Probably not. There's going to be some adjusting. But that farming could be different, and could it be profitable? Well, that's the question.

MORRIS: Because growing stuff under solar panels is one thing. But making a living doing that is something else.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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