opinion: Dual-use farmland is an important tool for diversifying a farmer's income

Going green with Alan Robertson of BlueWave Solar

Fri, 09/17/2021 - 8:00am

ROCKPORT —A new blueberry solar farm is ready to come online in a field near Route 17, close to Maces Pond.

The blueberry farm is owned by David Dickey. When Alan approached Dickey about using his blueberry farm as a solar farm, David insisted, “Only if I can still grow blueberries.” That is what BlueWave Solar does, combining photovoltaics and agriculture.  It is managed by Navisun LLC. It sits on approximately 12 acres and makes enough power for about 800 homes.

Ten thousand, six hundred and eight panels will labor in silence for 40 years. When decommissioned, they will still produce 80% of the power they produce today and will find a second life overseas.

Can you combine a blueberry farm with a solar farm? Yes! Most new solar farms support grazing, pumpkins, blueberries, flowers or pollinators depending on soil conditions. Botanists are developing plants specifically for solar farms. New bifacial panels allow light to pass through.

The farm is also a test facility in association with Dr. Lily Calderwood of the University of Maine. Calderwood, a wild blueberry specialist, has divided the farm into five test sites. These are her five best guesses about maximizing blueberry yields. She will gain valuable insights that will be applied to other projects in Maine.

Paul Sweet, the blueberry farmer, has been farming this land since the 1990s and is working closely with Calderwood. BlueWave Solar hired a local mechanic to build specialized equipment that will allow Paul to harvest blueberries under and around the solar panels.

Dual-use farmland is an important tool for diversifying a farmer's income. The income from leasing land to solar developers, which is between one to four thousand dollars per year, can help farmers weather drought, low prices and labor challenges.

Alan studied civil and environmental engineering in college. One of Alan's professors was the chair of the nuclear department. On the first day of class the professor said: ‘I know why a lot of you are here- you want to learn about solar and wind power and how it will change the future. I hope by the time you leave here, you'll understand that that is not feasible, that solar will never be mainstream.’

Alan took that as a personal challenge.

Forward ten years. Alan has facilitated the development and installation of over 100 megawatts of solar. He is working on 16 solar projects in Maine. Alan is just 33 years old and has a three year old daughter and a baby due in two weeks. I wouldn't bet against him!

Shawn McCarty is a member of the Rockland Solar Club; rocklandsolarclub@gmail.com