ANDERSON — Environmental advocates have for decades touted solar power not only as beneficial, but necessary to wean U.S. consumers from what they say is a harmful dependence on fossil fuels. That message has made slow headway, however.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the share of American energy consumption from fossil fuels has fallen from a peak of 94% in 1966 to 80% in 2019, the last year for which data is available. Solar energy currently makes up only 2.3% of the country’s total energy consumption.

Ventures like the Mammoth Solar project in northwest Indiana — for which 13,000 acres have been leased from nearly 60 landowners — are aiming to accelerate the process, but the issue has been a political hot potato in other places.

In Madison County, the proposed Lone Oak Solar Farm — a $110 million project on about 900 acres between Elwood and Orestes which would produce 120 megawatts of electricity — has encountered staunch opposition from dozens of residents. A lawsuit brought on their behalf in an effort to overturn the county Board of Zoning Appeals’ approval of the project recently was dismissed by the Indiana Court of Appeals.

Gov. Eric Holcomb, who often touts his administration’s “all-of-the-above” approach to energy production in the state, has advocated solar energy production as a key component of that strategy.

“Our regulatory and energy landscape has resulted in Indiana becoming a new leader in the growth of renewable energy,” said Timothy George, interim director of the Indiana Office of Energy Development.

As suburbs expand and housing developments continue to eat up previously undisturbed tracts of rural land, the issue of available space is becoming a greater consideration among solar companies and researchers. It’s led to a new field of study: agrivoltaics — combining agriculture and photovoltaics, a branch of technology focused on converting light into energy.

A team of engineers and agronomists at Purdue University has been experimenting with the possibilities of “aglectric” farming, mounting solar panels 15 to 20 feet above the ground at the university’s Agronomy Center for Research and Education (ACRE) facility in West Lafayette. Among the project’s goals is to establish and refine efficient methods of collecting infrared radiation for energy production while letting visible light pass through to crops like corn and soybeans.

“As the global population approaches 10 billion by mid-century, supplying all the needs of the human race from the Earth’s limited land area will be the essential challenge of sustainability,” Dr. Rakesh Agrawal, a professor of chemical engineering at Purdue who is co-leading the project, wrote in a paper published in Nature Sustainability, a monthly online journal specializing in research in natural and social sciences.

In the United States, Agrawal estimates that approximately 5% of the country’s land area would need to be covered with solar panels in order to meet all of its energy needs, including transportation. Agricultural land, much of which lies near significant population centers, offers prime locations for renewable energy creation. It’s hard to find space that’s more open than on a farm, he said.

“As a matter of fact, we have begun to see conversion of agricultural land to solar farms in some places,” he said. “When done on a large scale (eventually) this tradeoff of food for energy would be unacceptable.”

That conclusion helped lead Agrawal and a group of scientists to begin researching the issue in earnest in the mid-2010s.

The Purdue project has had three growing seasons with corn beneath east-west tracking panels at the ACRE farm. Data has also been collected on soybeans, and is being analyzed to design new, more cost-effective photovoltaic modules that Agrawal said will minimize negative impact on crop yield while maximizing electricity generation.

“We have also created models to calculate shadow intensities on plants throughout the day during the entire growing season,” Agrawal said.

Clean energy advocates said it’s too early to tell if, how or when elevated solar panels might become commonplace in cornfields across the state. However, they acknowledge that the energy production landscape in Indiana and elsewhere is shifting, and an open-minded attitude toward new technology would benefit the state’s farmers.

“We will have to find a way to fill the missing energy production needs that are displaced as regulations and social perceptions continue to drive coal-derived energy from the marketplace,” said Sarah Beth Aubrey, founder of the Indiana Agriculture Coalition for Renewable Energy. “Renewables are one way we will be able to do that.”
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