Innovator Higgins

Chad Higgins, associate professor of ecological and biological engineering at Oregon State University and director of the Nexus of Energy, Water and Agriculture Laboratory, is aiming to build a research farm called the Staterra Center to experiment with sustainable farming technology.

CORVALLIS, Ore. — For Chad Higgins, the “aha” moment came purely by chance.

Higgins, an associate professor of biological and ecological engineering at Oregon State University, was walking casually past a 6-acre sheep pasture near campus in 2015 when he observed something peculiar.

Two years earlier, the university had installed a solar array on the land, generating 1,435 kilowatts of renewable electricity. It was never meant for research, but Higgins’ scientific mind couldn’t help but notice how much greener and more lush the grass was growing in the shade beneath the panels.

“You could literally see ecological differences as a result of the installation,” Higgins said.

The discovery led Higgins and his team at the Nexus of Energy, Water and Agriculture Laboratory, or NEWAg, to begin studying how solar installations can make conventional farms more profitable and sustainable, from powering electric tractors to conserving water in low-rainfall areas.

Now Higgins has his sights set on establishing what he calls “the Disneyland of sustainable agriculture,” a research farm where growers, developers and academics can put these bold concepts to the test.

Called the Staterra Center, the name is derived from the Latin words “statera,” meaning balance, and “terra,” meaning Earth.

“We have an opportunity to do good,” Higgins said. “We have an opportunity to provide stable and additional revenue streams to American family farms. We have an opportunity to make sure we don’t run out of food in the future.”

Practical research

By his own admission, Higgins is not the most likely person to be designing farms of the future.

Higgins grew up in rural upstate New York before heading to Cornell University, where he graduated in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural and biological engineering. He later earned his master’s degree and doctorate in mechanical and environmental engineering from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

At that point, Higgins was studying turbulence and fluid mechanics — interesting subjects, he said, though highly technical and their significance was difficult to explain.

“I wanted to do something more practical,” Higgins said. “I wanted the research I did to be close enough to an implementable reality that I could explain it to my grandma....”

In 2007, Higgins left the U.S. for Europe to work at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. There he taught classes and helped to develop computer codes that could track Alpine hydrology and better predict avalanches.

After four years overseas, Higgins said he began feeling homesick. He saw OSU was hiring an irrigation specialist, and decided to apply despite his limited training.

“By some miracle, I was able to make the case that what I had learned could be applied to irrigation,” he said.

One of Higgins’ first visits in Oregon was to the recently built Shepherds Flat Wind Farm in rural Gilliam and Morrow counties along the Columbia River. Staring across a maze of wind turbines covering 30 square miles, Higgins made his first connection between renewable energy and its effects on farmland.

“I asked the simple question: Do the wind turbines affect the irrigation demand of most fields?” Higgins said. “That’s the day I founded the NEWAg Laboratory.”

Agrivoltaic systems

As director of the NEWAg Lab, Higgins and five postgraduate students examine how food, water and energy intersect — whether through technology, public policy or general farm practices.

The researchers published their first paper on wind energy in 2015, which showed that turbines at Shepherds Flat did increase water evaporation by about 10%. However, Higgins said the paper was “woefully and totally” ignored.

After Higgins took his serendipitous walk past the 35th Street Solar Array, he knew right away the lab needed to pivot from studying wind to solar.

Using a combination of meteorological equipment and soil moisture sensors, the lab spent months analyzing conditions in the pasture. What they found was grass beneath the solar panels used water 300% more efficiently, growing 90% more forage for livestock grazing.

“It was a massive improvement in water efficiency and productivity,” Higgins said.

The idea of co-developing land for farming and solar panels — known as agrivoltaics — is nothing new. German physicists were first to propose the concept in 1981.

“You essentially treat light as a farm resource that you manage, and don’t just take as it’s given,” Higgins said. “You put light, or sun, in the same class as you put water and fertilizer, for example, something you actively manipulate for agronomic benefit.”

Essentially, there is a maximum amount of light that plants can convert into sugars, Higgins explained. Just like people sweat in the hot sun, plants also use more water to cool themselves under stress.

Rather than apply more irrigation, Higgins said solar panels can create the shade that plants need to grow more efficiently, while also producing valuable electricity that can be used on the farm.

Higgins has a few ideas where the electricity can be used for even greater environmental benefits. It could go toward electrifying farm machinery, such as tractors, lowering diesel fuel emissions. Or it could replace burning natural gas in the process required to make nitrogen fertilizer.

Either way, Higgins said agrivoltaic systems could be key to helping farms go from a net carbon producer to net carbon-negative.

“The efficiency gains we get from technology, coupled with all the other benefits of light management, are all the ingredients we need for a sustainable farm,” Higgins said.

Staterra Center

The most recent study published by NEWAg shows that solar power has the highest productivity when placed on farmland.

Higgins said the results prove that, if just 1% of agricultural land was converted to agrivoltaics, it would be enough to offset global energy demand.

“Energy security, food security and water security are all pushed in the proper direction under that scenario,” he said.

The question then becomes how farmers and ranchers can configure the systems and interpret the data to make management decisions without interrupting normal operations. That is what Higgins hopes to answer with the Staterra Center.

“I don’t expect anyone to just take me at my word,” Higgins said. “The proof is in the pudding, so to speak.”

Higgins envisions the Staterra Center as a 5-acre parcel at OSU’s North Willamette Research and Extension Center south of Portland, with three to five solar arrays in various configurations and growing as many crops as possible.

But the Staterra Center is far from a done deal. Higgins said he will likely need a couple million dollars to purchase the equipment and begin the trials. Fundraising is underway, and Higgins said a few companies may donate panels and other gear for the center.

“It’s all potential at this moment,” he said. “It’s a glimmer in our eyes, and we have loose commitments. But it’s not a guaranteed thing.”

Higgins said Oregon has a chance to become a leader in agricultural innovation with the Staterra Center. Given some worrisome trends with climate change, a growing population and declining farmland, he said farmers must figure out how to feed the world with limited resources.

“The agriculturists are getting squeezed on every side,” he said. “Something’s gotta give. We have to think outside the box of how to do this.”

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