The POWER Interview: Agrivoltaics, and Connecting More Renewable Energy to the Grid

The farm-to-table movement has changed the way many people look at food. But these days the agriculture business can be more than just growing and harvesting vegetables and grains. Many farmers are investing in farm-to-grid, particularly agrivoltaics, the practice of growing crops on the same land as a solar farm, to produce food and provide renewable energy for the power grid.

Proponents note that dual uses of land bring benefits for both the ecology and the economy of their local communities. The plants help retain carbon and water in the ground, while the adjacent solar panels provide clean energy to help combat climate change.

BlueWave, a Massachusetts-based group that facilitates and supports renewable energy projects, is among the companies working with landowners to develop clean energy projects on agricultural land. BlueWave is a leader in the agrivoltaic sector, with a commitment to dual-use land practices, including researching how crop cultivation is impacted in areas with solar arrays.

Kavita Ravi

Kavita Ravi, Grid Integration and Managing Director at BlueWave, recently provided POWER with insight about the company’s work, and the steps needed to get more renewable energy onto the U.S. power grid.

POWER: What are the challenges faced by developers of renewable energy projects when it comes to getting their power generation connected to the grid?

Ravi: Developers of renewable energy projects face several challenges when it comes to connecting their power generation to the grid. From a structural perspective, the existing grid infrastructure was not originally designed with the intention of accommodating intermittent renewable energy sources, especially distributed generation. While it wasn’t the original intention, it’s possible to upgrade today’s infrastructure to ensure power reliability once intermittent energy sources are involved.

On the distribution side, the grid infrastructure is not yet optimized to handle reverse flow of power, which complicates the connection process. Consequently, utilities tend to be cautious and are often disincentivized to embrace the integration of renewable sources. Addressing the incentive structure could encourage utilities to expedite the process and facilitate smoother connections the grid.

Challenges exist at the transmission level as well, as there may be inadequate infrastructure to transmit renewable energy from where it is produced to where it is consumed. Solar and wind energy are abundant in the West and Midwest, but the load concentration is on the East and West coasts. We need to improve our infrastructure to ensure renewable energy is accessible to all.

Furthermore, we need to reevaluate our current power markets. Currently, they are not aligned to support the integration of diverse renewable power sources, presenting an additional hurdle for developers. As it stands, solar power is derated in the capacity it provides, reducing its capacity revenue compared to other non-intermittent resources.

POWER: Why are so many renewable energy projects stuck in the interconnection queue?

Ravi: There are a combination of factors at play that keep renewable energy projects stuck in the interconnection queue. On the transmission side, operators responsible for these projects lack the necessary resources to evaluate and process them as quickly as they come. In fact, utilities frequently exceed established timelines, as exemplified by Pennsylvania’s need to close its queue last year temporarily due to these issues.

Similar challenges persist when it comes to distribution, compounded by the absence of incentive programs. The costs associated with starting a project and making necessary system upgrades to accommodate renewable energy integration are significant deterrents.

The practice of installing solar arrays at agricultural sites, known as agrivoltaics, is growing as companies such as BlueWave support landowners looking for dual uses of their property. Source: BlueWave

Furthermore, concerns regarding the impact of renewables on grid reliability persist among transmission operators. To address this, transmission operators often conduct Affected System Operators studies to evaluate if the distribution level renewables have an adverse impact on the transmission grid.

One aspect of addressing these challenges involves the incorporation of battery storage to smooth the power output and a need for established market structures to facilitate the generation of renewable energy. However, the current scale is insufficient, costs are high, and there is a critical need to establish processes and financial incentives to attract investment. A synergistic approach involving both market reforms and regulatory measures is essential to resolve this issue. While progress is being made towards state and city-level goals, a unified federal government objective imperative to align everyone in the same direction.

POWER: Is U.S. renewable energy development being slowed by the need to upgrade transmission and distribution infrastructure?

Ravi: Without a doubt. Upgrades to infrastructure relies on three key pillars: regulation, market incentives (such as Investment Tax Credits or ITCs), and technological enhancements to the infrastructure. Technological enhancements involve instrumenting the grid to be self-aware and self-corrective. For example, meter readings currently occur on a monthly basis, offering only retrospective snapshots of energy consumption. What is needed is a shift toward a distributed energy resource management system (DERMS) to gather detailed data and accurately evaluate the impact of renewables on the grid.

POWER: Should the federal government take a more active role in working with states to solve problems related to permitting and interconnection delays?

Ravi: Yes, there is an opportunity for the federal government to play a more active role. Drawing from my experience as an AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) fellow, it’s often up to forward-thinking states to set the pace, but it’s critical that everyone is given the necessary resources to meet our shared climate goals.

The federal government’s primary role should be to establish a baseline standard. Appliances, for instance, are mandated to meet a minimum requirement, while competition drives the higher end of the market. Regulations serve as a necessary push for states that may otherwise be reluctant in embracing renewable energy initiatives. Nearly half of the country may not be as inclined towards renewables, especially in states where fossil fuel markets dominate and there’s little incentive to support renewable energy ventures.

In such cases, the federal government can step in with financial aid to incentivize and support these states. This approach not only helps level the playing field but also allows states who have proactively invested, such as California and Massachusetts, to recover those costs. This way, everyone stands to benefit from renewables. Looking at examples like Germany and Spain, which subsidized solar energy early on, it’s evident that such initiatives can lead to economic success stories. Many of the leading solar manufacturers now originate from these countries, enjoying the benefits of a global market.

A key example of this work at play in the United States is with the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). The IRA introduced new elements that helped bolster growth in the solar and storage space including tax credits extensions, new tax credits, a Low-Income Communities Bonus Energy Investment Credit Program, interconnection cost tax credits for 5 MW and under, and more.

During critical periods like the fourth quarter when efforts to streamline interconnection processes are a main focus, the federal government’s support is especially important. Currently, several states have meaningful pending or established renewable energy standards. However, the remaining states may require a gentle nudge in the right direction, and the federal government is well-positioned to provide that assistance.

POWER: How important is the use of energy storage to support the growth of solar and other renewable energy resources?

Ravi: The use of energy storage is vital in supporting this growth. Given the variables associated with renewable energy sources, energy storage systems have several beneficial use cases including “smoothing” or “firming” intermittent energy output and asset deferral. In regions like New England, solar energy is most abundant in the middle of the day, but peak energy usage typically aligns with the evening. In this scenario, energy storage becomes indispensable for balancing supply and demand.

As discussed previously, incentive programs play a huge role in supporting the clean energy market, and energy storage is no exception. Federal action such as the IRA and state-level programs, such as the Clean Peak Energy Standard in Massachusetts, can help strengthen energy storage and allow us to maximize the advantages of renewable energy.

POWER: How is BlueWave working to support dual-use solar energy projects, including in the agriculture sector?

Ravi: Since its inception, BlueWave has actively supported dual-use solar energy projects, particularly in the agriculture sector, by addressing critical aspects of interconnection, energy management and land use. In dual-use scenarios, agricultural areas tend to be less densely populated and therefore has a lower interconnection capacity. From an agricultural perspective, this creates an opportunity to design lower-capacity sites that can accommodate farming activities. But we still need to address the challenge of moving power to consumers. For instance, in the context of transmitting energy from western Massachusetts to Boston, this challenge becomes apparent. BlueWave acknowledges the importance of dealing with this issue and is actively exploring various solutions to ensure efficient energy distribution. One approach is investing in infrastructure updates to enhance the interconnection capabilities.

In line with a vision of convenient and accessible energy management, BlueWave is striving to make interconnection as user-friendly as possible. BlueWave aspires to create an experience compared to booking a vacation through an internet travel provider. Ideally, users would input their location, and the system would determine the available energy services, allowing them to choose based on convenience and price tolerance.

Through these initiatives and solutions, BlueWave is actively supporting the integration of dual-use solar energy projects in agriculture, making them more efficient and accessible.

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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