No crop can grow without good old-fashioned sunshine. But increasingly, solar energy doesn’t benefit just crops – increasingly, it also is powering and fueling the industry itself.
At the University of Arizona, for example, the Arizona Meteorological Network (AZMET) has deployed 30 automated data collection stations throughout the state. These stations collect multiple data sets, including air and soil temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, sunlight and rainfall. Each weather station is self-contained and solar-powered, and they wirelessly transmit the data back to the AZMET offices in Tucson via the Verizon Wireless network.
"Two of the most popular items we put out are evapotranspiration values and heat units," says Bruce Russell, AZMAT program coordinator. "That really helps farmers manage labor and other inputs."
Russell says when the weather stations were originally conceived, they used ground lines. The solar-powered, wireless combination is a much better solution, he says.
"When we used ground lines, that limited the field we could get into because tillage practices often cut the lines, and others didn’t want to participate," he says.
All the way across the country in Bridport, Vt., the makers of Woodchuck Hard Cider decided to harvest the sun in addition to apples. Vermont Hard Cider Company installed a new solar project that will produce approximately 210,000 kWh of electricity per year for the company. That’s enough energy to cover an estimated 10% to 15% of the company’s current electric demand.
The "solar orchard" covers 1.5 acres and uses 26 pole-mounted dual-axis allSun Trackers. The devices use GPS and wireless technology to follow the sun throughout the day to soak up maximum solar power. They are produced in-state in nearby Williston, Vt., by AllEarth Renewables.
"Sustainability efforts like these are at the core of our mission," says Bret Williams, Vermont Hard Cider president and CEO. "To be able to tap into local renewable energy is good for our business, the local economy and the planet.
And Michigan-based Harvest Energy Solutions just announced an expansion into Minnesota. Mark Oinyk, CEO of Harvest, explains that although the company primarily served the small wind marketplace when it began operations in 2006, priorities have shifted dramatically to solar projects since then. That’s because the price of solar panels have become increasingly cost effective, he says.
"The solar industry is becoming a shining example of how an important new industry is brought along to the point where it can soon compete on its own," he says. "We are seeing solar costs come down as traditional costs for energy rise."
The moment of "grid parity" – when solar costs are equal to fossil fuel costs – is fast-approaching, Oinyk adds. He and other solar energy proponents say the future of this energy source looks bright.