Tomatoes grow under solar panels at the University of Massachusetts as an example of agrivoltaics, which combines a solar photovoltaic array raised far enough off the ground and space in such a way that some crops can still grow around and beneath the panels.

Last month, the McLeod County Board delayed voting on a permit for a new solar array in order to review a plan to continue agriculture use on the same plot of land. At its June 1 meeting, commissioners gave the "agrivoltaics" plan a shot in a split 3-2 vote.

On 20-acres of land northeast of Plato, SunShare Community Solar Gardens of Colorado is working with landowner Donald Engelman, and local partners TangleTown Gardens, Ames Farm and Red Hive Honey, to try a relatively new process.

Vegetable crops will share land with the panels. The shaded plants will need less water and cool the back of solar panels, allowing more energy to be captured. Beds of hostas, flowers, leafy greens and other plants may also be planted between arrays. The 2,000 linear feet of fence line will be used to plant climbing vegetation such as tomatoes and cucumbers. Native grass will be planted in unused space, and at least 16 bee hives will offer a safe place for pollinator populations and to produce local honey. Up to four jobs are expected to be created with the project.

The plan was pitched to the County Board as a way to allow landowners to use their land for solar projects as they see fit, but alleviate the concerns board members have had when denying previous projects. The county's ordinance governing such projects requires prime agriculture land be preserved.

The Helen Township Board recommended approval of the project, as did the Planning Commission in a 4-1 vote after reviewing the agrivoltaics plan. The conditional-use permit comes with numerous stipulations that require the landowner to keep track of stray voltage, immediately respond to problems and preserve land features such as drainage. A surety of $125,000 must be given to the county for the duration of the project, or until the land is reclaimed to its original state.

“This has always been a hard decision for me to make because of the ordinance," said Board Chair Doug Krueger, adding he's not sure the government should interfere with the business of landowners. 

He said he saw the agrivoltaics plan as one that will serve local markets, and make efficient use of the land. The benefits to pollinators especially caught his eye. 

"We seem to have cut an inroad," he said.

Vice Chair Paul Wright said the plan was "fantastic."

"It is something new and something we should be embracing," he said. "It looks like quite a successful thing to have happen here in McLeod County."

"I've been on the fence on this one way or the other," said Board Member Joe Nagel. "This is what pushes it over the top for me. This is great."

Nathan Schmalz said he didn't feel the surety amount was sufficient, as it's unknown what the value of a dollar will be in 40 years. The lifetime of the garden is estimated to be more than 35 years. Marc Telecky, the county's environmental services director, said the $125,000 surety is based on the project's size and best estimates built on the known decommissioning costs of panels as reported by contractors. While it's possible inflation could factor in, the cost to recycle panels could also decrease over time.

"We should be raising the decommissioning surety with our decision today," Schmalz said. "I think it's a good plan, though."

Board Member Daryl Luthens asked what would happen if the agrivoltaics site lost a partner. Telecky said they would have to add a new partner if the change broke compliance with the permit. If the permit is breached, the county is able to take action.

Nagel made a motion to approve the permit without changes, and Wright seconded the notion. Nagel, Wright and Krueger voted in favor of the permit, while Schmalz and Luthens voted against it.