Connecting the dots between clean energy, local food, and community building may seem like a utopian dream, but for Byron Kominek, founder of Jack’s Solar Garden, it is an intentional undertaking that has been generations in the making. By co-locating beneficial agriculture and a solar power plant, Jack’s Solar Garden is the country’s largest commercially active agrivoltaics system researching a variety of crop and vegetation growth under solar panels, as well as a pillar in the local community.
Jack’s Solar Garden is named after Byron’s grandfather who first purchased the family farm in Longmont, Colorado in 1972. Since then, the 24-acre farm primarily grew hay which became less economically viable as time went on. Byron knew that there had to be a better way to steward Jack’s legacy. He envisioned a future farm that was ecologically productive, benefited the community, and supported his family financially.
Researching the various opportunities to further grow the farm, Byron came across agrivoltaics. It was a relatively new idea in the United States where clean, local solar energy can be produced while the land beneath the solar panels is still active. With agrivoltaics, vegetation could be grown, keeping land productive, the soil alive, and carbon sequestered.
Working in partnership with the local county government, the land use code was updated in 2018 to allow for a mixed use solar power plant and agricultural farm. This allowed Byron and his family to co-locate the 1.2 MW community solar farm on just over 4 acres of land, providing solar energy to approximately 300 homes each year. It also opened up the possibility of agrivoltaics for at least another 50 farms across the county that are equally close to utility interconnection points.
Through research partnerships with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the University of Arizona, and Colorado State University, Jack’s Solar Garden provides a proving ground for critical research on the effectiveness of agrivoltaics. Researchers are investigating many aspects of Jack’s Solar Garden, such as studying if vegetation needs less water when planted under the shade of solar modules. Researchers are also studying the effects of temperature on the shaded vegetation as well as solar module output and efficiency. These findings are paramount as farmers in the American West must address local climate change concerns like the availability of water and the effect of rising temperature on crops.
Community-building and education are critical aspects of the ethos at Jack’s Solar Garden, prompting the creation of the Colorado Agrivoltaics Learning Center. Through this nonprofit side of Jack’s Solar Garden, Byron and the team at the Colorado Agrivoltaics Learning Center encourage sustainability leadership by connecting students, community members, and decision makers to clean energy, local food, and responsible land use management through agrivoltaic tours and events. Farm-to-table dinners, an artist-in-residence program, and small outdoor concerts are some of the community-centered events you can find happening.
In a crowded world with ever-growing limitations on space and increasing climate change concerns, dynamic solutions are needed now more than ever for our communities and planet to thrive. Jack’s Solar Garden and the Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Center have taken a piece of productive farmland and made it into so much more – a community gathering place, a learning lab for scientific research, a pollinator habitat, and a local solar power plant operating without greenhouse gas emissions.