Dec. 18, 2023

Moo-ve on over, there’s an exciting new solar project in town

Agrivoltaics project receives $3M from Emissions Reduction Alberta, paving the way for solar energy generation alongside cattle farming
A shot of a cow grazing in a field with a solar panel behind it
The project announced at COP 28 in Dubai will establish an agrivoltaics research facility. iStock

A transformative collaboration between local Solartility Inc. and the University of Calgary is poised to redefine the intersection of agriculture and renewable energy. 

This partnership, facilitated through the Industry Engagement team in the Office of the Vice-President (Research) at UCalgary, has been awarded $3.1M by Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA), and was announced by the Government of Alberta at COP 28 in Dubai on Dec. 6.

The project is a measured step towards renewable energy adoption in Alberta, culminating in the establishment of an agrivoltaics research facility. The funding from ERA is a proof point to the power of partnerships, and the crucial role played by the VPR Industry Engagement team in bringing this idea to life. The collaboration brought together researchers from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and the Faculty of Science, as well as from the Schulich School of Engineering, fostering a comprehensive and transdisciplinary approach to the agrivoltaics model.

“I am thrilled by our pivotal role in this transformative project in collaboration with Solartility,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research). “This work exemplifies our commitment to innovative and transdisciplinary research with significant impact to our community.”

What is agrivoltaics?

“Agrivoltaics is the simultaneous use of areas of land for both agricultural production and solar energy generation,” explains Dr. Ed Pajor, professor in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and director of W.A. Ranches. “It is being used with various types of crop production and to a limited extent with sheep and dairy cattle. Very little research has occurred using agrivoltaics on cattle ranches.”

Agrivoltaics initiatives have the flexibility to arrange solar panels in different configurations tailored to the requirements of the animals or crops intended to coexist with the solar installation. In the context of this project, the solar panels will be positioned in vertical rows, ensuring ample space between the rows to facilitate grazing for cattle. This practice is called solar grazing.

“We believe this double use of land will be a win-win for ranchers. You have solar panels generating new revenue, but the cattle are still grazing on that land, so the original revenue source is still there,” says Dr. Paul Galpern, associate professor of biological sciences in the
Faculty of Science. “We’re planning to measure this potential as well as other risks and benefits of these projects, such as for greenhouse gas emissions, for the health of the cattle, and for the soil and pasture.”

Cultivating collaboration: project beginnings

Solartility, a Calgary-based renewable energy utility provider, had an ambitious goal of seamlessly integrating solar energy generation with cattle farming, addressing the critical challenge of land competition between food and renewable energy production. Recognizing the need for a collaborative approach, Solartility turned to the VPR Industry Engagement team at UCalgary. Their expertise in navigating to explore the complex landscape of academia, industry, and government support, and aligning project goals with broader initiatives, proved instrumental in turning this vision into a funded reality.

“By bringing the expertise and resources of this innovative Alberta company together with our scholars, we will advance agrivoltaics in our province in a way that we could not do independently,” shares Carmen Rieder, Manager, Industry Engagement (Research). “We look forward to a mutually beneficial research partnership with Solartility for many years to come.”

This laid the groundwork for a transdisciplinary research endeavor with academics from UCalgary, with the ultimate goal to build an agrivoltaics research facility at W.A. Ranches. The 19,000-acre ranch in the foothills of Alberta was generously donated to UCalgary in 2018 for the purposes of teaching and learning, research, and community engagement. This act of philanthropy provides the canvas upon which researchers will conduct long-term veterinary, ecological, and environmental monitoring studies. The donated land becomes not only a physical space for innovation but a symbol of private and public partnership in advancing sustainable solutions.

The project team from the University of Calgary includes:

  • Dr. Ed Pajor, PhD: director, W.A. Ranches; professor, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine
  • Dr. Paul Galpern, PhD: associate professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science
  • Dr. Mostafa Farrokhabadi, PhD: assistant professor, Department of Electric and Software Engineering, Schulich School of Engineering 
  • Dr. Hamid Zareipour, PhD: professor, Department of Electric and Software Engineering, Schulich School of Engineering

“This facility assembles a remarkable array of multidisciplinary academic research groups and industry partners, all united by the common goal of demonstrating, collecting data on, and ultimately spearheading commercialization of a pioneering system that sets a new paradigm of dual land use for both renewable energy and agricultural production," says Jon Bichel P.Eng., M.Eng., COO, Solartility Inc.

As plans begin for the launch of the research facility at W.A. Ranches next year, the story of collaboration stands as a testament what can be achieved when industry, academia, and government unite for a sustainable future.

As Corb Lund says, Everything is better with some cows around.

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