Grafton discusses growing crops under solar panels

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Grafton discusses growing crops under solar panels
Paul Knowlton, left, chats with Mike Farrell of AES during a celebration of the agrivoltaics program at the Knowlton Farm on Sept. 12. (Photo/Maureen Sullivan)

GRAFTON – Agrivoltaics.

It’s a strange word for a program still in the early stages, but it could provide the key to preserving farmland while also encouraging renewable energy resources.

On Sept. 12, representatives from regional solar companies, along with local and state officials, gathered at the Knowlton Farm in North Grafton to hear about agrivoltaics, or growing crops underneath solar panels.

Grafton Solar is AES’ first agrivoltaic site in Massachusetts and the Northeast, and it combines solar energy production and crop cultivation in the same area.

“We’re really excited” about the project, said Grafton Town Administrator Evan Brassard. “There’s unprecedented stress on land use [from development].”

Solar panel project explained

This “dual use” approach covers 19 of the farm’s 300 acres. Hundreds of solar panels, raised about 10 feet off the ground, provide enough power for up to 1,200 homes. It also provides income for the Knowltons, who have operated a farm on Estabrook Road for five generations.

“I think it’s come out well,” said Paul Knowlton.

Knowlton has had the solar arrays on the farm since 2017.

The elevated panels mean more land available for planting and grazing. This summer, Knowlton brought cows back to the farm, which marked the first time since 1995.

Mike Farrell, the New York/New England director of development for AES Clean Energy, which owns and operates the solar project, acted as emcee for the event. He started by honoring the other partners, including American Farmland Trust, Borrego, BlueWave and National Grid.

“Solar energy provides half of the new energy generation in the United States,” he said. “How can we harvest both clean energy and food?”

Through UMass-Amherst’s Clean Energy Extension Program, data is being collected – such as moisture in the soil and what crops work best – and will be “shared widely,” according to Farrell.

“What this little project is doing is show the rest of the nation how to think outside the box, have the land work for you,” he added.

“I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished,” said Trevor Hardy, co-founder and CEO of Blue Wave, the original developer of the solar project. “I remember standing on a hill with Paul [Knowlton] eight years ago, and wondered if we could make this happen.”

The Grafton Solar project was acquired in 2020 from Blue Wave, according to AES’ website. AES is anticipating that the project will reach its full output potential in October.

“It’s such a win-win … to get this right is like the stars aligning,” Hardy added.

Knowlton took part in a panel discussion about what could be in store for agrivoltaics, from financial incentives to additional research.

“I don’t think there’s a limit to this program. The initial signs are very viable,” he said.

For information, visit www.aes.com/grafton-solar.

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