SALEM — A chance observation at a sheep pasture near campus could soon lead to a multi-million-dollar research project for Oregon State University professor Chad Higgins.
The university had just installed new solar panels at the six-acre pasture in 2015 when Higgins began to notice something curious. The grass seemed to be growing more lush and green later in the summer beneath the panels, prompting Higgins to monitor weather data in the field.
What he found was the grass used water three times more efficiently in the shade of the panels, which got him thinking: is there a way farmers can capture solar energy not only to create renewable electricity, but also manage sunlight to help crops grow healthier and later into the season?
Higgins, who runs the Nexus of Energy, Water and Agriculture Laboratory at OSU, discussed his proposal for “agrivoltaic systems” during a presentation Jan. 17 at the Northwest Ag Show in Salem, Ore., emphasizing how technology can increase sustainability on farms and ranches.
“I always want to come up with ways to make farming easier, and extend the resources we have for the next generation,” Higgins said.
By the end of his impromptu experiment at the pasture, Higgins found that grass growing beneath the solar panels still had water in its root zone, while grass in a control plot exposed to direct sunlight had completely dried out 60 days into the growing season.
Higgins compared it to a tortoise and hare race — like the tortoise, grass beneath the panels grew slower but longer, versus grass in the control plot, which grew faster but shorter.
“When I took the sun away, it forced them to grow more slow and steady,” Higgins said. “It won the race, in the end.”
Higgins has since applied for $10 million in USDA funding to establish a 200-acre working farm at OSU, where he and students can study the same principle on different crops, like berries, barley and row vegetables. Solar panels would be mounted on steel racks, and elevated high enough to allow farm equipment to pass beneath.
Higgins said he expects to hear back from the USDA on the grant application by May, though that timeline could be affected by the ongoing federal government shutdown.
The NEWAg Lab at OSU is also taking advantage of data and technology to help farms be more efficient in other ways, Higgins said. Using the Google Earth Engine, Cynthia Schwartz, a faculty research assistant, was able to pull together satellite data revealing the potential of farmland based on factors like slope and soils for the entire globe.
It took Schwartz just a week to pull all the information together in one place, Higgins said.
“Data is floating everywhere,” he said. “You can just zoom in and get what you want.”
For another more localized example, Higgins said the lab recently worked with King Estate Winery, near Eugene, Ore., installing relatively inexpensive fiber optic sensors to assess why one area within a block of wine grapes struggled to survive the winter.
Using the information, they found that the grapes were prone to freezing, prompting the winery to pull out those vines and better use their resources.
“From space, you can’t see this level of granularity,” Higgins said. “We also have to be able to innovate on the ground.”