Oregon State, Rute Foundation Systems explore agrivoltaic advances – Portland Business Journal – The Business Journals

Agrivoltaics, the idea that solar power and farming can form a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship, might be morphing from cuddly concept to real-world game-changer. And Oregon — where solar and agriculture haven’t always played well together — is doing its part to drive the shift.
In Aurora, Oregon State University has broken ground on the five-acre “Solar Harvest” project where Chad Higgins will go deeper into research that he began in 2015, when agrivoltaics was in its infancy.
Separately, the Portland company Rute Foundation Systems is testing a structural approach for high-clearance ground-mounted solar arrays that could improve the economics of blending PV and agriculture.
“We’ve shown broadly that it works,” Higgins, the OSU professor, said. “But the first question I get asked by farmers is one I still can’t answer: ‘I have this piece of ground, it’s this soil, it’s this climate. What crop should I grow and how should the solar panels be arranged so the whole thing works together so I maximize my opportunity?’”
That would mean that solar development provides a new revenue stream for farmers — and improves their farming.
“Believe it or not, even here in Oregon we get more sunshine than crops need,” Higgins said. “They experience light stress. To deal with that now, we water them. But instead of adding material into the system, why not remove the stress? That’s what the shade does.”
It works the other way too.
“Agriculture can enhance solar,” Higgins said. Vegetation under panels keeps a site cooler than if the ground were cleared. That boasts photovoltaic efficiency that declines in high heat.
Marrying solar and farming would represent something of a paradigm shift in Oregon. In 2019, after a series of conflicts in the northern Willamette Valley, land-use regulators put several top classes of high-value farmland off limits to commercial solar installations.
Higgins was well underway exploring the possibilities by then, and interest has exploded in recent years.
“For a long time we were the only people in the United States doing this research,” he said. “Since then, there’s so much I can hardly keep track of it all. There’s a sense that it’s an idea whose time has come.”
The Oregon Clean Power Cooperative is building the Solar Harvest project at OSU’s North Willamette Research and Extension Center. It will be part of Oregon’s Community Solar Program, which allows utility customers to buy into solar power’s benefits without a system on their own rooftop. Portland General Electric’s Renewable Development Fund and the Roundhouse Foundation contributed to the project.
Panels won’t cover the entire five acres. Instead, they’ll be scattered in patches, allowing the researchers to test light levels, watering protocols, crop spacing and more against controls. The goal is to understand how these variables act on alfalfa and grass as reference crops, and then extend that knowledge to other crops.
While Solar Harvest will use standard equipment, Rute, the Portland company, has other ideas. It wants to go higher to make more room under the array. But instead of simply using more costly steel, it takes a page from suspension bridges and uses cables to secure the panels to the ground.
“We’re able to achieve great efficiencies by using less steel in the structure,” David McFeeters-Krone, a business advisor to the company, said. These cables can also be used to adjust the angle of the panels, providing tracking, an add-on for typical solar that improves efficiency, “kind of for free,” he said.
This isn’t Rute’s first foray into alternative renewable energy structures. Its president and ideas man, Doug Krause, also invented a way to do wind turbine tower foundations that uses prefabricated modules laced with steel strands. That reduces the amount of concrete used. Two demonstration installations went up before Covid hit. After that interruption slowed things, Krause is optimistic that concept has a chance to take root.
A $200,000 federal Small Business Innovation Research grant in 2021 helped fund development of the Suntracker, including a test installation in North Dakota. The goal with the OMIC array is to continue to improve the technology as a springboard to a fairly large-scale demonstration project.
Higgins thinks Rute might be onto something.
“I think David’s system has a lot of promise,” he said. “There is going to be time where a higher solution above the ground is a better solution than the one we have. I can think of a couple right off the top of my — cattle grazing and vineyards.”
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