written by James Sinks
Honeybees dance and dip among the lightly shaded wildflowers in this patch of Rogue Valley farmland, zipping between splotches of color and—when filled with pollen—curl back to their boxed hives to offload their cargo, and then start anew.
It’s almost a normal agricultural view. Until you look upward.
The canopy above the carpet of wildflowers is not made up of tree branches, but rather rows of solar power panels, covering some 40 acres near Eagle Point. The installation came online in 2016 and produces 10 megawatts of renewable electricity—enough to supply the power needs of roughly 8,000 houses.
To Rogue River beekeeper John Jacob, the dual-use solar site—the nation’s largest “solar apiary”—is a thoughtful example of how farms of the future can coexist with renewable energy, and make the world better.
And importantly, he said, the sites can act as organic refuges for stressed pollinators, who are pivotal to $3 billion in agricultural production in Oregon and Washington alone.
Jacob’s Old Sol Enterprises transports bees to orchards and berry farms up to eight hours away, from California to Spokane, and employs five people at peak season. In addition, with bee colonies suffering die-offs every year due to habitat loss, chemicals, disease and mites, his hive-starting queens are in high demand.
After more than two decades in the bee business, he is now putting some of his energy into a niche that matches his passion for protecting the planet—consulting to co-locate apiaries with solar facilities.
“Climate change is happening and people like to see viable action that is being taken that is beautiful and sustainable,” he said. “We need this.”
The apiary site in Eagle Point is overseen by North Carolina-based Pine Gate Renewables, and marked Jacob’s first solar-bee venture. He is consulting on several additional projects, on the drawing board from Southern Oregon to the outskirts of Portland.
Done right, Jacob sees places where bees can thrive and recover. At the same time, he said the arrays could supply welcome income potential for farmers, much like wheat growers in Eastern Oregon have benefitted with the installation of wind-power turbines. “Farming is a tough sport,” he said.
The idea of solar arrays spilling off rooftops onto Oregon farmland has proved controversial, and the debate has found its way to the courts and even the statehouse.
Since the 1970s, the land use system has protected prime cropland and pastures from industrial development, and recently high-profile applications for large rural solar installations have been rejected, including an 80-acre development proposed near Medford. In addition to uneasiness about farm impacts, the visual prospect of banks of solar panels next door has rankled some prospective neighbors.
Critics say large-scale solar development threatens traditional farms. Updates to land-use goals—which didn’t anticipate solar power forty years ago—are being discussed.
Promoters of renewable power development were stung this spring when the state’s land-use commission limited the size of new solar installations on prime soil, which covers much of the rural real estate near power-hungry cities in the Willamette Valley. The commission, however, did open the door a bit for larger projects, if they are “dual use” that pair farming and solar generation on the same site.
Jacob argues that, thanks to a previous legal decision, bees are now considered livestock in Oregon, and thus represent an important agricultural use.
He said he sees eye-to-eye with those who want to protect farmland. What he doesn’t want, he said, is an “either-or” dynamic in which valuable cropland is ultimately graveled over for power generation. Bee farms are a way to make sure the landscape stays in production, and can be protected for the future, he said.
Climate change is happening and people like to see viable action that is being taken that is beautiful and sustainable. We need this.
Combining bee-friendly habitat and solar arrays is common in other states, such as Minnesota, and also in Europe, said Evan Bixby, a market lead for Pine Gate Renewables.
He said his company looks for opportunities to work with neighbors and give back to the land, and the Southern Oregon project offered a chance to do a native prairie restoration and, with Jacob’s help, to establish an apiary. Other pollinator-friendly projects are planned, he said.
The Pine Gate project has proven a boon for the bees. The native wildflowers produce a bounty of pollen—a protein source—and the resident hives are the most productive of his more than 3,000 Old Sol colonies, Jacob said. “The bees are kicking butt there,” he said.
With curiosity about the idea rising, Jacob presented at the Oregon Solar Energy Conference this spring, where he and his wife shared advice and tubes of live bees. His email inbox is filling, and consulting now makes up about 20 percent of his business, he said.
Also on the conference docket was Chad Higgins, an Oregon State University professor of ecological engineering whose research on non-irrigated parcels found that vegetation under solar panels is less strained, uses less water, and produces up to 90 percent more.
“This may reduce some of the tension between ag and solar,” he said. “Nobody likes leaving money on the table.”
Angela Crowley-Koch, executive director of the Oregon Solar Energy Industries Association, said solar generation commonly occurs in tandem with an existing use, such as on rooftops, and this is no different.
Clean power benefits everyone, she said, and finding ways to meld agriculture and solar is an exciting growth opportunity for both industries.
There’s another industry that is also benefitting, at least in Southern Oregon.
A former bartender, Jacob is supplying honey from the solar site to Caldera Brewing Co. in Ashland, where it is an ingredient in the popular “Let’s Bee Friends” Honey IPA.
After twenty-two years in the bee business, not only is he helping to make the world more sustainable. There’s beer as a byproduct.
“Future generations are going to thank us,” he said. “Our food supply depends on pollinators, and pollinator habitat is going to be immensely valuable to society and everybody.”