This Colorado 'solar garden' is a farm under solar panels The newly passed infrastructure bill could lead to a boom in solar production requiring a lot more land, including farmland. But research is showing solar panels might actually help grow some crops.

This Colorado 'solar garden' is literally a farm under solar panels

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With close to $2 billion devoted to renewable power, the newly passed infrastructure bill could be a win for the solar industry. Expanding solar power will require a lot more land outside cities, which in many cases also means shrinking farmland. But as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, researchers say solar panels might actually help grow some crops.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: When Byron Kominek returned to his family's farm near Boulder, Colo., after working as a diplomat in Africa, the 24 acres of fertile land at the doorstep of the Rockies was struggling to turn a profit.

BYRON KOMINEK: Our farm has mainly been hay producing for 50 years, and this is a big change on one of our three pastures.

SIEGLER: That big change is an eye-opener - 3,200 solar panels mounted on posts 8 feet high above what used to be an alfalfa field. But this transformation wasn't easy, even in a progressive county that wanted to expand renewable energy.

KOMINEK: When I approached Boulder County of - well, can we put solar panels up on our farm? They said, nope, land's for farming, so go farm it. And I said, well, we weren't making any money. You all want to be 100% renewable at some point, so how about we work together and sort this out?

SIEGLER: They eventually did, with help from nearby universities and a federal lab which has been studying how to turn all that otherwise unused land beneath the panels into a place to grow food. The local regulations were updated, and Kominek installed the solar panels a year ago.

KOMINEK: Heck, we can walk right - just walk in that divot there.

SIEGLER: There's plenty of space between them.

KOMINEK: And when I was ripping and tilling the soil, I could drive my tractor really close to the panels.

SIEGLER: So in the spring, they planted crops. Kominek was skeptical at first, but by late summer, he was a believer. The crops thrived because they had intermittent shade from the hot sun.

KOMINEK: From peppers, tomatoes, squashes, pumpkins, kale, various types of lettuces, turnips. Do I keep going? Beets, carrots.

SIEGLER: Looks like we got kale still in business over there, yeah.

KOMINEK: Oh, kale never dies.

SIEGLER: A little shade also meant a lot less evaporation of irrigation water. This is called agrivoltaics. It's pretty new, and Kominek's farm is one of only about a dozen in the country experimenting with it. But it's drawing attention, especially here in the West, due to the 22-year drought. One of the foremost experts in the field is Greg Barron-Gafford at the University of Arizona.

GREG BARRON-GAFFORD: Around the Western U.S., water is the reason to go to war. Water is the reason that we have to have real big arguments about where we're going to get our food from in the future.

SIEGLER: Barron-Gafford's research in the Arizona desert showed some crops grown underneath solar panels need 50% less water. The infrastructure bill sets aside about $300 million for new solar projects, and researchers are lobbying for some of those funds to go toward agrivoltaics, especially incentives for farmers to add solar to their portfolio.

BARRON-GAFFORD: If you really want to build infrastructure in a way that is not going to compete with food and could actually take advantage of our dwindling resources in terms of water in a really efficient way, this is something to look at.

SIEGLER: The federal government estimates up to 2 million acres of American farmland could be converted to solar in the next decade, just as a lot of family farmers are near retiring or barely hanging on. In Colorado, Byron Kominek doesn't think it has to be an either-or proposition. To finance these $2 million solar arrays, he literally bet the farm.

KOMINEK: We had to put up our farm as collateral, as well as the solar array as collateral, to the bank. So if this doesn't work out, we lose the farm.

SIEGLER: But farming is all about taking on risk and debt, and so far, anyway, his bet is paying off.

KOMINEK: That humming is the inverters making us money.

SIEGLER: Those inverters kick enough power back into the grid for some 300 homes. Kominek hopes to soon grow enough food beneath them to feed as many local families.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Longmont, Colo.

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