This community solar startup is helping farmers turn their unused land into a new revenue stream
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This community solar startup is helping farmers turn their unused land into a new revenue stream

This community solar startup is helping farmers turn their unused land into a new revenue stream

When Trevor Hardy first started looking at community solar in 2008, people thought he had lost his mind. But while those people thought he was crazy, he had a more optimistic view: they just “didn’t have the holistic viewpoint or deep understanding of the true value that renewable projects could deliver,” he tells us.

While most people didn’t agree with Trevor at the time, two people did: long-time energy markets researcher Eric Graber Lopez and the former EPA New England Administrator John DeVillars.

The trio put their money where their mouths where and joined forces in 2012 to co-found BlueWave Solar. They had a simple but ambitious goal: to have “every home, business, and community can be part of the solar energy revolution.”

Community solar not just the ‘cherry on top’ for farmers

For many people, adopting solar solutions are the cherry on top. But for farmers, community solar solutions are often a crucial income source. That principle is personal to Trevor — his parents are farmers in South Africa.

We sat down with Trevor to discuss how the community solar space has changed since he co-founded BlueWave and how companies like his brings value to farmers who work so hard to put food on our table.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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The space has grown quite a bit since then. What do you think fueled that growth?

What’s driving that growth is not only a deeper awareness of the long term impacts of climate change, but also recognition from the capital markets that on a risk-adjusted basis renewables projects are a very attractive asset class from a long-term yield perspective.

In your view, where is solar headed in, let’s say, the next 5-10 years?

There is no doubt in my mind that solar, especially when integrated with storage, will change the world as we know it. Right now, we are in the process of breaking ground on 16MW of solar with battery integrated storage.

For scale, 1MW takes up about 5-7 acres, so this would be approximately 100 acres of solar panels, all with integrated storage. In the next 5-10 years, storage will be the gasoline on the solar fire, making it take off exponentially, especially in the US, as a cost-effective resource able to meet a meaningful portion of our base load.

What needs to be done in order for community solar to be fairly ubiquitous?

Solar alone will not meet our needs, but solar with storage can fulfill a meaningful portion of our demand. Our customers –  including homeowners, communities, and companies – are also becoming more familiar and focused on this. They all want to do the right thing, but it has to be a practical economic decision.

For example, as a homeowner, if I can sign up for a community solar subscription at no cost and save up to 10% on my electric bill, why wouldn’t I do that? We are here at BlueWave because we believe in protecting the planet, but we know that solar will only be widely adopted when it becomes a no-brainer financially.

How do residential solar services like BlueWave’s help farmers in their operations?

For farmers, community solar represents an opportunity to increase revenue on unused or underutilized land while still maintaining its ecological function and potential for other uses. Solar can be developed to not only improve financial stability of small local farms, but also to promote ecological biodiversity and soil health at the farm.

Planting crops intentionally with solar panel shading, a type of sustainable development termed “dual-use”, can improve long-term soil health and bring in pollinators to the area, helping to improve farming productivity.

What do the finances look like for BlueWave’s services for a typical farmer with un-utilized land? Is there a lengthy break-even timeline?

Our relationships with farmers are established via simple long-term lease agreements whereby the farmer hosts the project and gets paid rent on a regular basis – there is no upfront cost to them aside from maybe getting their attorney to review the lease agreement.

We maintain these lease payments for the lifetime of the project, typically 20 years, with an option for extension at that time. In some situations, some of our original landowners are now working with us again to build new arrays on their land. So the breakeven is basically immediate, and farming operations can continue even with array construction.

Farmers are often challenged with poor growing conditions and economic downturns like COVID-19 make their operations even harder. How does BlueWave help its customers mitigate these challenges?

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It’s true – especially in our New England backyard, farmers here see short growing seasons, limited space and rocky soils. It can be challenging. With the unprecedented situation we are all facing right now, farming is not immune either. The model we have created involves bringing on a farm manager who helps the farmer and family with agricultural planning support. Additionally, that partner helps serve as the liaison between the farmer and BlueWave.

Despite all of the macro-challenges right now, the sun is still shining, our projects are continuing to send electricity to the grid, and our farmers are continuing to receive steady land lease payments from us. It’s worth mentioning too that we determine a standard land-lease rate with farmers for the length of the 20 year contract which are not impacted by seasons or array productivity. So as a financial investment, the return farmers are earning is stable and it continues to be predictable.

How do BlueWave’s farm managers help the company’s clients?

The farm managers that we work with through third party agricultural organizations help to provide expertise on optimal agriculture design alongside solar arrays.

Can you briefly walk me through a successful case study? What was the farmer’s position, what did BlueWave do for the farm, and what are the results to date?

A great example of a success story with our farmers is Elizabeth “Liz” Varney and her family farm, Twin Elm Farm, in Mendon, MA. Her family had been exploring ideas to generate additional income on their over 650+ acres of land. Knowing that the land was so valued in the community, they didn’t want to look to any options that would dramatically change the aesthetics of the land, so they decided solar would be a great fit.

We’ve worked on the development of three projects at Twin Elm Farms that now are producing 5.1 million kilowatt-hours of clean, renewable electricity per year. That’s the equivalent of the annual electricity for over 625 households.

The projects were all constructed as community solar farms and to-date, 38 residents, businesses and municipalities have signed up for subscriptions with the projects. The projects continue to be managed with several environmentally friendly practices, including bringing sheep, which have no emissions output, onto the pasture to graze and maintain the land while also increasing the area’s diversity and assisting with the microbial health of the soil.

It’s been a fantastic example of what’s possible when solar and agriculture join forces. Liz and her family have been able to collect lease payments on parts of their previously unused or underutilized land that continues to maintain its ecological function while contributing to the clean energy future locally in Massachusetts.

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