Student and faculty researchers explore food-energy-water system at solar farm

Francisco Tutella
January 21, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — From the edge of the farm, the completed solar arrays and those under construction seemed to never end. In reality, they occupied only a small area of Pennsylvania land in rural Franklin County, but the arrays possessed a much larger potential, which a group of Penn State faculty and graduate students had traveled two hours to see.

The Penn State scientists who visited the site are part of the first cohort of LandscapeU, a National Science Foundation Research Traineeship program that brings together graduate researchers from across the University to study the food-energy-water system in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and beyond. The visit to the solar farm, which is owned and operated by Lightsource BP on about 500 acres leased from local landowners, was the program’s first research field trip.

“The solar farm exemplifies a number of the issues surrounding food-energy-water system challenges,” said Erica Smithwick, E. Willard and Ruby S. Miller Professor of Geography and director of LandscapeU. “It integrates the transition to renewable energy alongside challenges in agriculture and considerations of water and ecosystem services. We’re interested in how you co-achieve benefits within the food, energy and water systems.”

Pennsylvania’s Solar Future Plan aims to generate 10% of the state’s electricity needs by the year 2030 using in-state solar energy, including rooftop solar and grid-scale sites like the solar farm. The grid-scale solar needed to achieve this goal would use less than 0.3% of the state’s total land area.

LandscapeU field trip participants at the solar farm.

LandscapeU participants tour the solar site in rural Franklin County, Pennsylvania.

IMAGE: Cindy Etchison

Lightsource BP construction manager Mark Chambers gave the Penn State group a tour of the site. He also answered questions about the solar arrays and site practices, including the use of rye grass to maintain the soil and the potential to use sheep to maintain the grass.

Garnet Eshelman, one of the landowners leasing his property to Lightsource BP, accompanied the group on the tour. He answered questions about the history of his farm, the difficulties dairy farmers like him have faced in recent years, and his decision to go solar.

Smithwick, who also holds an appointment in the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI), said, “What we want to do is create an environment where we have individuals from multiple disciplines talking with each other about common challenges and problems, but we also want them to be doing it alongside stakeholders and the people who are actually working on that particular piece of land. We think that by allowing students to speak with the stakeholders from multiple perspectives and to see this as a systems problem will give them a better understanding of the science that they do individually and how they might contribute to those larger solutions.”

After the tour, the group discussed the future of solar energy in Pennsylvania and across the nation. They also discussed the interdisciplinary opportunities that may arise for Penn State faculty and students who want to study the solar farm as an ecosystem that integrates water, energy and landscape issues.

Penn State graduate students sign a solar panel.

Penn State faculty and graduate students sign a solar panel. 

IMAGE: Francisco Tutella

“The field trip to the solar farm was a great opportunity for me because it helped me connect the discussions we have had in class throughout the semester to real-life situations related to the food-energy-water nexus,” said Susan Kotikot, a doctoral student in geography and an EESI Environmental Scholar. “This was my first trip to a solar farm, and I have always imagined a large area covered with solar panels such that nothing can grow beneath the panels. The fact that crops could grow normally or sheep could graze was interesting. I now see how management decisions can be made in order to integrate solar farms as part of a sustainable watershed management plan.”

Smithwick said she found the trip exciting because it allowed Penn State faculty and students to go to a place where change is happening and to see the impacts firsthand. She views it as an opportunity for researchers to stay engaged and to see how the farm continues to transform and where the opportunities are to participate from the beginning in co-creating change.

Last Updated January 23, 2020