Illuminate Home
A row of solar panels with farm building in the background.

Putting the “farm” in “solar farm”

Two major industries are under the microscope in Iowa: Agriculture and renewable energy. Researchers at the Iowa State University (ISU) College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, a top-10 globally ranked program, are trying to answer the question, how can renewable energy and agriculture peacefully coexist? 

Energy companies often choose solar project sites on relatively flat land in open areas where the sun can reach the panels. Throughout the Midwest, farmland often fits the bill. More than 85% of Iowa's land is farmed, so studying how solar energy and agriculture work together, known as agrivoltaics, is crucial for farmers and energy companies. 

ISU's solar farm features a 1.375-megawatt panel array with variation built into the design. For instance, some of the panels follow the sun; others are fixed at different heights. This variety allows researchers to experiment and study how energy generation, horticultural crop production and beekeeping affect each other under different conditions.  

Faculty and student researchers will grow various fruits and vegetables, including raspberries, strawberries, squash and broccoli, beneath the panels. They'll also raise honeybees and plant pollinator habitat to support them.  

Researchers will study whether crops grow well under solar panels, if they get enough sun and water and if they affect energy production. Research has already shown some crops grow better under solar panels because they provide a more stable climate, similar to a greenhouse, protecting the crops from harsh weather patterns. This innovative approach could bridge gaps in community acceptance of renewable energy and offer new opportunities in agriculture – including a new source of produce for ISU dining halls. 

The farm was made possible by a $1.8 million grant from the Department of Energy’s Foundational Agrivoltaic Research for Megawatt Scale program and will cover research and development costs over the first five years.   

The researchers hope this farm will showcase how agriculture and renewables can peacefully complement one another. They’ll share the results with project partners in the utility and solar space. The university’s extension network will provide decision support tools and agrivoltaics training programs for farmers and others with an interest in the partnership of these industries across the state. 
Grant Barton is a Communications Partner with a passion for sustainability and eco-friendly city planning. He has a diverse background in engineering, politics and international communications and hopes to apply this experience when writing and breaking down complex topics related to Alliant Energy's Clean Energy Future plans.

Recent Stories