Gardens of the Sun

How solar gardens can provide renewable energy and enrich local ecosystems

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The Solinator Garden in Fort Collins
Courtesy of Namasté Solar

Among the rolling hills and sprawling neighborhoods of south Fort Collins, a new solar energy installation will not only provide renewable energy, but also a canopy-sanctuary for bees, birds and other pollinators. 

Part energy production facility, part ecosystem enrichment program, The Solinator Garden is moving Fort Collins one step closer toward its goal to operate on 100-percent renewable energy by 2030. And Boulder County will soon have a similar facility — one that will be community-driven and agriculturally progressive.  

Solar gardens like these don’t just put clean energy production into the hands of a local community. They also have the inverse environmental effect of extractive energy production: They can actually enrich local ecosystems and leave the land healthier and more productive.

The Solinator Garden came to fruition over the past year and a half through a collaboration between the City of Fort Collins, Namasté Solar and Solaris Energy, and opened in mid-November.

It’s still a young project, but the hope is that the Solinator Garden will enrich the plant and animal life of the local area. By providing a garden full of specific pollinator-friendly plants, and seeding the soil beneath the elevated panels with drought-resistant, hyper-local native seed mixes, the project developers are creating a pristine pollinator habitat.

At the same time, the 2,700 panels will be tracking the sun’s progress and feeding 1 megawatt of sustainable solar energy annually into the grid — enough to fuel over 200 homes. 

“I guess you could look at it like [the Solinator Garden] is producing a little bit of solar energy for everybody on the City of Fort Collins’ municipal electricity,” explains Kyle Sundman, the project developer at Namasté Solar. 

The Solinator Garden was developed, engineered and built by Namasté Solar. The Boulder-born, employee-owned cooperative found the land for the project, secured the lease and the power purchase agreement with the City of Fort Collins. 

Namasté “put the puzzle together,” as Sundman puts it. Then, Solaris Energy became the owner and operator toward the end of 2018, when it purchased the project from Namasté. 

“We’re hoping that [solar gardens] will catch on,” says Nick Francis with Solaris. “There’s a lot of open space, and [solar gardens] benefit the individual and they benefit the community.”

In Longmont, a prospective community solar garden takes the concept one step further. With plans to be running by spring 2020, Jack’s Solar Garden on 95th Street will explore the intersection of solar power, pollinator enrichment and food production. 

“Were going to use the land underneath our panels to study agrivoltaics; the co-location of agriculture plus solar panels,” explains Byron Kominek, whose family has owned the land since his grandfather, Jack, bought it in 1972. 

In partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Colorado State University and the University of Arizona, Jack’s Solar Garden won’t just be generating power and providing pollinators with a sanctuary — it’ll also be growing garden produce. 

“[The panels] help to moderate the temperature underneath them so you can extend the growing season of crops,” explains Kominek. The panels also act as protection from the elements, he adds; and the humidity that is created by the plants cools the panels and can actually increase their efficiency.

Kominek says the agrivoltaics system will also generate 1.2 megawatts of renewable energy, far more than similar systems around the country.

Jack’s Solar Garden is also partnering with the Audubon Society of the Rockies, which will be planting some 1,800 shrubs, bushes and trees over the next few years, according to Kominek. 

“That’ll be really cool, helping to feed the local bees and the birds,” he says. “And then hopefully we’ll have plenty of fruiting plants, so when people come out for tours, they’ll be able to pick a little something as they walk along.”

Perhaps the most direct community benefit Kominek will offer is a program where subscribers can purchase solar panels out at Jack’s and get credits from Xcel Energy to use against their electricity bill. It’ll be almost as if the subscriber had installed the panels on their own home — but instead, they’ll be out in Longmont providing pollinator habitat and helping grow food. 

Like the Solinator Garden, Kominek hopes Jack’s Solar Garden can be a model for other local energy producers and farmers alike. 

 “We want to show [them] that, ‘Look, that’s valuable space that we can be doing more with,’” he says. “This opportunity is there, so why don’t we do this for the betterment of our community?”