Researchers test solar energy’s shade benefits to dairy cows

June 2020

University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center’s (WCROC) newest 30 kW ground-mounted solar photovoltaic (PV) system, installed in 2018, generates power for the Center’s operations, while also serving important research and educational functions.

This investment in on-site solar energy has inspired studies of the benefits of on-farm solar beyond power generation, including providing cattle with a cool resting place as they graze, and research evaluating the cost-effectiveness of such systems.

This article is reposted and adapted with permission from the original by University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center.

The economic impacts of agrivoltaic systems and land productivity from solar farms will drive the adoption of solar photovoltaic systems.

Brad Heins, University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center

Research on solar’s shade benefits to livestock

The concept of “dual use” of agrivoltaics, or the combination of agricultural land use and solar electric production, has been around since the early 1980s, explains Fritz Ebinger, Rural Energy Development Program Manager of Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs). Many institutions, including the National Renewable Energy Labs and WCROC, are currently experimenting with horticultural and grazing practices under solar farms to quantify the benefits of co-locating solar technology in farm fields.

In a recent WCROC study, researchers assessed the potential of solar to provide shade benefits to the Center’s grazing dairy herd. The 30 kW system can provide shade relief for 30 to 40 cows under one structure, an important benefit during hot, summer months where average temperatures in the region range from 81 to 93 degrees.

The preliminary study tracked and compared the behavior and body temperature of two groups of grazing cows over a three month period during the summer of 2019—those with access to shade under ground-mounted PV solar panels and those without. Comparing differences across these groups revealed body temperature benefits of the solar installation to pastured dairy cows.

This research from WCROC is getting noticed by the agricultural community and others in Minnesota. You can see recent coverage from Dairy Herd Management, Progressive Farmer, and even Minnesota Public Radio.

In the future, the research team plans to assess:

  • How shade from solar panels impacts cows’ milk production long-term
  • What benefits solar tracking systems may provide to livestock farms
  • How solar panels may act as windbreaks for cattle
  • Which crops and forages grow best under solar systems

Video: Solar shading for dairy cows

Agriculture has a prime opportunity to be an integral contributor to the green energy movement. Farms have high energy demand and large plots of land that have potential to house renewable energy generation systems.

Samantha Putlak, research assistant and student, University of Minnesota

Assessing financial feasibility of agrivoltaics

In another project made possible by a 2018 West Central CERT Seed Grant, WCROC researchers investigated the financial viability of on-farm solar projects in the region, helping fund a summer internship for University of Minnesota undergraduate student and research assistant Samantha Putlak. In this project, Ms. Putlak determined local information needs for assessing the feasibility of on-farm solar, including cost estimates, incentives, and utility pricing structures.

Applied research into the benefits and feasibility of on-farm solar from University of Minnesota WCROC, as well as technical assistance and resources from the Clean Energy Resource Teams, can help farmers make informed decisions on solar investments.

  • Location: Morris, MN
  • Technology: Financial viability study for 30 kW on-farm, ground-mounted solar PV array with Heliene panels installed by Zenergy
  • Project Teams & Organizations: Brad Heins, Kirsten Sharpe, Eric Buchanan, Michael Reese, and Joel Tallaksen, University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center; Arne Kildegaard, University of Minnesota Morris; Samantha Putlak, University of Minnesota Twin Cities
  • West Central CERT Seed Grant: $5,000

Video: Solar energy in Morris

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