UI’s Solar Farm 2.0 now a hotbed for new research

SAVOY — The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s two solar farms have become a key part of campus’ clean energy supply.

But the next frontier for researchers is exploring what sorts of pollinator plants, crops and wildlife can coexist with the photovoltaic arrays.

Two multi-year research projects — Pollinator Habitat Aligned with Solar Energy (PHASE), and Sustainably Co-locating Agricultural and Photovoltaic Electricity Systems (SCAPES) — are taking place at Solar Farm 2.0, the 54-acre panel array that began producing power for the UI campus in February 2021.

“It is remarkable that in less than two years, researchers are turning the Solar Farm into a living laboratory, that has the potential to shape the future of agricultural production and pollinator-friendly habitats,” said Facilities and Services Director Ehab Kamarah.

In PHASE, researchers from the University of Illinois Chicago and Urbana campuses and other partners are placing pollinator plantings at seven large, utility-scale solar energy facilities to see how the plantings affect energy collection, and if any ecological benefits ensue. (Solar Farm 2.0 is one of the sites).

“We want to see if you build a pollinator habitat there, will the insects and will the wildlife come?” said Lee Walston of Argonne National Laboratory.

“This has the potential to be a new piece of the farm landscape, a new type of farming to support habitat enhancements,” said UIUC Entomology Professor Adam Dolezal. “But at the same time, solar facilities have to be profitable; they have to generate electricity and meet solar goals.”

Solar energy profitability is a similar concern for SCAPES, which is bringing in farmers, land owners and solar developers to find ways to integrate solar power with crop production, and reduce competition for land.

The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture will provide $10 million over four years for the UI to lead this research on the emerging technique of “agrivoltaics.”

“Solar farms are really profitable, much more than corn and soybean farming. So there is this potential conflict between food and energy,” said Madhu Khanna, professor in Environmental Economics and director of the Institute of Sustainability, Energy and Environment at UIUC. “Agrivoltaics is a good alternative for how we can produce both food and energy from the same land.”

So far, pollinator plantings at the Solar Farm 2.0 have attracted a range of wildlife, researchers said. The SCAPES team has focused first-year efforts on modeling the optimal arrangements of crops and panels to maximize yield and energy production.

This year and next, the team will begin planting short stature crops to see how the panels and plantings perform, said Crop Sciences Professor D.K. Lee.

‘Walking the walk’

There’s a world of difference between the first and second solar farms on campus.

Aside from the research happening at Solar Farm 2.0, located north of Curtis Road between First Street and Dunlap Avenue, it’s far larger (54 acres versus 20.8) and produces a lot more power (20,000 megawatt-hours versus 7,200).

Part of 2.0’s appeal is its bifacial solar panels, which take in sunlight on both sides and follow the sun through the day.

The UI has a 20-year, $20.1 million contract with national solar energy firm Sol Systems to maintain the Solar Farm 2.0

Combining the rooftop solar arrays on campus, the wind power the UI purchases from the Rail Splitter Wind Farm in Lincoln, and its two solar farms, more than 10 percent of the school’s electricity demand is supported with clean energy.

Having two solar farms has allowed the campus to achieve a sustainability goal set in its 2015 Climate Action Plan: produce than 25,000 megawatt-hours of solar energy from campus installations by fiscal 2025.

“The opportunity to witness this solar farm unfold and the impact it’s having is the latest example of university not only talking the talk but walking the walk of its commitment to sustainability,” Chancellor Robert Jones said.

Author: systems