US cranberry farmers turn to solar power

Cranberry farmers are hoping to cope with lean times for their industry by gleaning extra revenue through long-term land leases with solar power developers. AFP Caption text, Caption text, Caption text. (Reuters)
Updated 27 November 2019

US cranberry farmers turn to solar power

  • Farmers look to build solar panels above bogs with crops grown underneath

CARVER: Plummeting cranberry prices and the country’s ongoing trade wars have America’s cranberry industry eyeing a possible new savior: Solar power.

Some cranberry farmers in Massachusetts, the nation’s second largest grower after Wisconsin, are proposing to build solar panels above the bogs they harvest each fall.

It’s a novel approach to blending renewable energy technology with traditional farming that has been researched across the world but not tried before on large-scale, commercial crop cultivation, according to solar power and agricultural industry experts. The basic idea is to build solar arrays high enough off the ground and in more spaced-out clusters to allow for crops to be safely grown and harvested underneath.

Cranberry farmers hope to shoulder lean times for their industry by gleaning extra revenue — in the form of long-term land leases with solar developers — while still producing the same quality berries they have for generations. An ongoing, nationwide study also suggests certain crops in particular climates can thrive under solar panels, though it’s unclear at this point how cranberries will fare.

Michael Wainio, a fourth-generation cranberry farmer, said he has sold off parts of his land, started a side business harvesting bogs for other growers, and launched a farm stand, deli and bakery
operation in recent years to make ends meet.

“We’re doing everything we can to diversify, and it’s not enough,” he said. “If we don’t get this, I’d be surprised if we made it five years.”

Wainio is working with
developer NextSun Energy on a project calling for roughly 27,000 solar panels over about 60 acres (24 hectares) of active bogs across three farms in Carver, near Cape Cod. The project would produce about 10 megawatts of energy, or roughly enough to power more than 1,600 homes, according to NextSun.

The cranberry industry has been dealing for years with the combined effects of crop surplus and weakening demand for one of its primary products, cranberry juice, said Brian Wick, executive director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association.

The price of cranberries has plummeted 57 percent over the last decade, from roughly $58 a barrel in 2008 to $25 in 2018, according to US Department of Agriculture data. But Wick says the cost to produce the tart red berries in Massachusetts is nearly $35 a barrel.

The USDA permitted industry to dump millions of pounds of fruit in 2017 and 2018 in order to stabilize prices, but the country’s ongoing trade disputes with Europe and China are further compounding the struggles for an industry that previously exported about 30 percent of its product, Wick said.

FASTFACT

57%

The price of cranberries has fallen 57 percent in the US over the last decade.

“What we like about these new solar projects is that they have a farm-first mentality,” he said. “This is an opportunity to keep the industry going. This isn’t about replacing farms with solar.”

In Massachusetts, cranberry growers and their solar partners are hoping to take advantage of a new renewable energy incentive meant to encourage such “dual use” solar and agriculture projects, as the state refers to them.

To qualify, arrays must meet certain design requirements, such as being built at least 8 feet off the ground. The projects also must provide an annual report demonstrating the land under the panels remains agriculturally productive.

At least one proposal has received state approval, a handful of others are under review, and more are pending before local authorities or are in earlier stages of development, say state and cranberry industry officials.

Dual use projects have proven successful on livestock farms in Europe and the US, and hundreds of projects have been built on crop farms in Japan, though all those are vastly smaller than what’s being proposed on Massachusetts cranberry bogs, said Jordan Macknick, an analyst at the federal National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado who is coordinating a nationwide study on “agrivoltaics,” as the idea is sometimes referred.

The impact on crop cultivation in different environments is still being researched, he said.

In a study published in September in the academic journal Nature Sustainability, researchers at the University of Arizona found that cherry tomatoes grown under solar panels in the hot desert landscape produced higher yields and required less water.

But ongoing trials at a related site run by the University of Massachusetts have so far found that broccoli, kale and peppers are less productive growing under solar panels in the more temperate New England climate.

Other University of Massachusetts researchers are also beginning to assess the potential impact on cranberries. They erected large wooden structures meant to mimic the shading of a solar panel array on one of Wainio’s bogs this summer.

On a recent visit, countless berries could be seen growing under the structures, but researchers said they’ll need to assess their quality and yield when they’re harvested.

Giverson Mupambi, a UMass cranberry expert involved in the effort, said one key factor they’ll examine is color. The fruits need to achieve a bright red hue to be sellable, and sunlight is generally needed to achieve that color.

Property owners living near one of the proposed projects, meanwhile, have formed an opposition group and argue the state should proceed cautiously because the long-term environmental impacts of such large-scale projects are still unknown.

Those concerns and others have prompted the state to propose scaling back the size of projects allowed under its new incentive, among other new requirements. Solar developers say the proposed measures would make many projects financially infeasible.

And at least one major player in the cranberry industry remains lukewarm on the new approach to solar power.

A.D. Makepeace, the world’s largest cranberry grower and one of Massachusetts’ largest landowners, is not currently looking to take advantage of the new state incentive, spokeswoman Linda Burke said.




The revenue that solar power offers has been helpful to farmers as the price of cranberries has dipped in recent years. (AP)

 


New Delhi to sell full stake in debt-ridden Air India

Updated 27 January 2020

New Delhi to sell full stake in debt-ridden Air India

  • The airline, which owes more than $8 billion, has been struggling to pay salaries and buy fuel
  • Formerly India’s monopoly airline, carrier was once known affectionately as the ‘Maharaja of the skies’

MUMBAI: New Delhi intends to sell its entire stake in the debt-crippled national carrier Air India, the government announced Monday, after failing previously to secure any bids for a majority share.
The airline, which owes more than $8 billion, has been struggling to pay salaries and buy fuel, with officials recently warning that it would have to shut down unless a buyer was found.
On Monday the civil aviation ministry released a document inviting bids for a 100 percent stake, setting March 17 as the deadline for initial submissions.
Potential buyers would have to assume around $3.26 billion in debt, the document said.
The government was forced in 2018 to shelve plans to sell a 76 percent stake in Air India after failing to attract any bidders.
India’s Tata Group, Singapore Airlines (SIA) and IndiGo were all linked to a takeover but subsequently ruled themselves out.
Founded in 1932 and formerly India’s monopoly airline, the company was once known affectionately as the “Maharaja of the skies.”
But it has been hemorrhaging money for more than a decade and has lost market share to low-cost rivals in one of the world’s fastest-growing but most competitive airline markets.
In November aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri had said the airline would “have to close down if it is not privatized.”
State-run oil companies halted fuel supplies to Air India in August after it fell behind on payments, though the firms agreed to lift the suspension a month later after talks brokered by the government.
The country’s aviation sector has been stuck in a slump since the collapse of Jet Airways last year.