April 21, 2024

This story was originally published by Inside Climate News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate desk cooperation.

Converse County is one of the most welcoming areas in Wyoming when it comes to clean energy. For about every 20 residents there is one wind turbine, the highest ratio in the state. At a recent County Commissioners meeting, it took another step toward diversifying its energy infrastructure, signaling its intention to issue its first solar farm permit to BrightNight.

The global energy company has proposed building more than 1 million solar panels, a battery storage facility and several miles of overhead transmission lines on 4,738 acres of private land managed by the Tillard farming family near Glenrock. The Dutchman Project, as it is called, is notable not for its generation or its storage capacity, but for the creatures that toil beneath its panels.

The base of each solar track panel will be several feet off the ground, providing plenty of room for the Tillard’s sheep to graze. In a state whose farming industry predates its inclusion in the union, combining solar power generation with livestock grazing or other agricultural practices, a technique called “agrivoltaics,” could forge an unlikely alliance between two industries — one old; the other, high-tech – which typically compete for resources.

At the end of their Feb. 6 hearing on the Dutchman project, Converse County Commissioners instructed the county attorney to draft an approval order, indicating they will likely give the project its permit later this month.

“BrightNight is proud to reach today’s allowable milestone. Our project is ideally situated to deliver valuable capacity to a growing region preparing for significant generation retirements,” Maribeth Sawchuk, the company’s vice president of communications, said in a statement to Inside Climate News. The company is focused on “new-scale renewable power solutions, while also raising the industry standard for community engagement and support.”

The Tillard family could not be reached for comment.

A map of Wyoming showing the location of the proposed solar farm on the eastern side of the state.
Inside Climate News

Jim Willox, chairman of the Converse County Board of Commissioners and one of the people responsible for reviewing BrightNight’s permit application, recalled being excited to see the company propose an agrivoltaic approach to building solar. to use.

“I think the solar industry has learned that they don’t just have to be bare ground,” he said. “I find this very exciting and a continuation of Wyoming’s view on multiple use.”

Willox has been a Converse County commissioner for the past 18 years, during which he has seen the rise, fall and re-emergence of fossil fuels in the county. When he first began his work, coal production was a major economic asset for the country. Now, “it’s zero,” he said.

While fossil fuels continue to play an important role in the county’s economy, and Converse County continues to take an “all of the above” approach to energy development, “we also truly believe that renewable energy is part of the energy portfolio for the county and it’s generally welcoming to them,” Willox said.

Economically speaking, Willox saw the solar farm as a good source of tax revenue for the county. “You’ll have sales tax that will be collected during construction, then there will be a property tax value increase,” money from BrightNight that could be used for schools, hospitals and other public resources in the county, he said.

Still, renewable energy — much like oil, gas and coal — is not without “some challenges and some concerns,” Willox said.

A few partnerships between farmers and scientists showed that some crops respond poorly to life under the penumbra of a solar farm. Shade from the panels can sometimes trap too much water near the plants, and the presence of large photovoltaics can make it difficult for farmers to carry out their harvest.

At the public information session held Tuesday in Douglas, Wyoming, county residents gathered in a courthouse basement to hear presentations from BrightNight executives about the Holland Solar Farm’s permit application. Afterward, some county residents raised concerns about the solar farm’s access to transmission lines, its impact on prairie dog migration patterns and the effects of radiation on residents.

BrightNight must wait for its county and state permits before its access to the network is determined, said Jess Melin, BrightNight’s executive vice president of development. As with other nearby energy projects going through the permitting and contracting phase, Melin said once BrightNight has a permit and a power contract, that’s the point when they say ‘OK, let’s actually sit down at the table and negotiate queue position.’ . for delivering energy to the grid.

Brandon Pollpeter, BrightNight’s director of development, called prairie dog migration a “difficult thing to manage” and said the company will coordinate with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to consider best practices for responding to the rodents. He added that any high voltage equipment, which produces a small amount of electromagnetic waves, is located far from the community, and will not be a factor for residents of the province.

“This country is very knowledgeable about energy and energy generation,” Pollpeter said. “We got excellent feedback.” Pollpeter added that BrightNight increased the project backlog and moved its construction entrance in response to local concerns.

There is evidence that agrivoltaic solar farms are as efficient grazing areas as traditional open pastures, and that combining grazing with solar power generation increases land productivity by providing crops with respite from the sun in hot, dry environments.

In the spring of 2019 and 2020, Chad Higgins and a team of other researchers from Oregon State University tracked the sheep grazing at an agrivoltaic solar farm in Oregon and measured the animals’ growth, grazing habits and water consumption. They divided two groups of sheep on the same land; one that grazed near the solar panels, and another that browsed open pastures. What they found led them to conclude that agrivoltaic solar farms could be an ideal setup for sheep farmers.

“In the early spring grazing season, which is when grazing is most intense and there is most growth, we were able to put more sheep on the agrivoltaic range than on the open pasture, and the sheep grew at the same rate,” Higgins said. . an associate professor in Oregon State University’s Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering. “There was generally more production in that intense grazing period because of the solar panels.”

The reason why has to do with shadow. “You can reduce heat stress for plants by watering them more or shading them a bit,” Higgins said. “If you shade them a little bit – which you’re going to do, for example, in a Wyoming project that’s on non-irrigated fields – you’re going to reduce some of that heat stress on those plants. Those plants tend to grow a little more, and as they grow a little more, the sheep take advantage.”

The study found that, while the sheep grazing near the solar panels experienced a 38 percent drop in the amount of grazeable vegetation, this was offset by an increase in the available plants’ quality, as measured by the vegetation’s nutrient composition. tissue. Despite having access to less vegetation, the sheep that grazed near solar panels “gained weight at their maximum rate,” reaching similar peak weights as sheep on the open field, Higgins said. “We actually had to fence the sheep in the open field to keep them in the open field because, given the choice, they all chose to be in the solar.”

Agrivoltaic solar farms, while suitable for sheep, are more difficult to adapt to cattle, Wyoming’s most common livestock. The state is home to 1.2 million cattle, which are sharper and heavier than sheep. Cows “just hit equipment by rubbing it,” Pollpeter said. The solar industry “is taking a hard look to try and see how it starts to make sense. But, at least in my personal opinion, we’re not quite there yet.”

Among Wyoming’s sheep farmers, there may be a burgeoning interest in agrivoltaics. “If there are opportunities to bring the two together that offer sheep producers greater income and better financial stability, that’s the type of thing we’re looking for,” said Jim Magagna, a longtime sheep farmer and executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. , the state’s most powerful livestock advocacy organization.

Given the variation in soil, pasture plants, sunlight, moisture and terrain across Wyoming, Magagna stopped short of endorsing agrivoltaics as the de facto approach to solar farms moving forward. “I think it has to be a carefully considered decision by the landowner,” he said.

Magagna would not rule out the possibility of an agrivoltaic solar farm popping up on public land in the future, a process that would involve years of planning and environmental assessments by the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, as well as input from stakeholders. But given the fact that a majority of public lands in Wyoming are grazed by cattle, “I think the opportunity to do that on public land on a very significant scale wouldn’t be there today,” he said.

In January, the BLM released a environmental impact statement regarding utility-scale solar farms in 11 Western states, including Wyoming, as it considers whether or not to modify its approach to solar farms in the region. The agency recognized agrivolatics as an “emerging [photovoltaic] system” that may gain commercial traction in the future.

Converse County Commissioners expect to finalize their support for the Dutchman project permit during a Feb. 20 vote. The company still needs to get a permit from the state Department of Environmental Quality, whose Industrial Locations Board is already considering the company’s application. Should the state issue it a permit, BrightNight expects to break ground on the Dutchman solar farm as early as March next year.

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