Regenerative farming is the most scalable, affordable, and immediate solution to climate change, but its adoption has been anemic. Only one percent of US farmers have transitioned their operations, despite objective science and its profitability. TrackerSled will change that by altering the balance of risk and return for farmers and their communities. When rural electric co-ops pay farmers to generate solar power with TrackerSleds on cover crop fields, they will supercharge experimentation and adoption of regenerative practices, which will drawdown immense quantities of carbon.
Of the top twenty climate change solutions identified by Drawdown.org, eight involve the food system, which remains mostly unchanged since WWII. Although wind turbines and solar farms are top-ten solutions, renewable energy can only slow climate change - it can't reverse it like photosynthesis can. That's where two different types of farmers - both dependent on the sun's energy - can cooperate in drawing down billions of tons of carbon while boosting rural economies with income, jobs, and improved resilience.
Solar farmers can use TrackerSleds, which are bilaterally symmetrical plug-n-play units that can link together, to generate clean energy on crop farmers' fields. Each TrackerSled includes a pair of single-axis solar trackers.
Most crop farmers, already prone to weather uncertainty, operate on tight margins in hypercompetitive markets. Consequently, they are reluctant to risk their livelihoods to experiment with practices that don't depend on historical methods and proven agrochemicals. With favorable leases providing income nine times higher than a typical farmer's profit, electric co-ops can entice conventional farmers to try regenerative practices on TrackerSled fields. Those farmers will discover the advantages of chasing profit over yields after three years of lower fuel costs, lower labor costs, and lower input costs. Those farmers will then scale regenerative practices to the rest of their farm. And then they'll talk to other farmers.
Rural electric co-ops make ideal solar farmers and can deliver economic and health benefits to their communities. In the next two decades, rural electric cooperatives will need to develop renewable energy sources to replace the capacity lost from retiring coal plants while also improving grid stability. With TrackerSleds, electric co-ops can produce solar power affordably on members' farms while creating four local job-years for every 12-acre installation. As farmers focus on profit instead of yield, small farms will become viable again, creating even more jobs. Regenerative farmers will grow food more nutrient-dense than their counterparts since soil microbes and fungi avail more protein, calcium, and iron than agrochemical inputs. Unlike conventionally tilled fields, rainwater will infiltrate regenerative farms, conserving it for droughts while protecting the drinking water supply.
When farmers grow diverse cover crop mixes without chemical fertilizers, plants exude one-third of their liquid carbon underground for synergistic microbes. This underground carbon, instead of the carbon in plant tissue, is the organic matter that can restore 391 million acres of US cropland to preindustrial levels.
If US cropland farmers increase the carbon content of their soils by 5%, they will sequester over one-quarter of all the carbon released globally into the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. In parallel, if ranchers increase carbon in their soils by 2%, the US could drawdown nearly half of the global carbon to return to preindustrial levels.
Solar farms can either hinder carbon sequestration or support it. Since 2013, the amount of land used for solar farming in the US has risen five-fold, while farm bankruptcies peaked in 2019 at their highest level in eight years. NREL expects solar land use to increase another twelve-fold by 2030. Instead of supplanting farmland with permanent solar farms, rural electric co-ops can enhance the nation's most extensive carbon sink by paying farmers $700 for every acre of TrackerSled fields - every year - for 25 years. It's a win-win.
When farmers compare TrackerSled leases with the average profit of $80 per acre they earned in 2018, they will opt-in. They can then determine which regenerative practices are most effective on their soils, free from the threat of financial loss. In further support, co-ops can lease TrackerSleds to member farmers clustered around the same location to share best practices and specialized equipment. Soil scientists can support the farmers by using their TrackerSleds as platforms for measuring, reporting, and verifying carbon levels, corroborating data collected by drones and satellites. As they validate the carbon sequestration, carbon credit markets will generate more annual income for the farmers, while permanently increasing the value of their real estate.
Electric cooperatives are perfect partners for the TrackerSled. Their values already align with their member farmers and communities. The USDA, which farmers know well, administers electric co-ops through its Rural Utility Service (RUS). With existing RUS programs, co-ops can receive grants and loan guarantees to build TrackerSled solar farms, independently or with an experienced solar developer.
Electric cooperatives are a well-organized base of potential TrackerSled customers. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) has 900 members, 700 of which participate in the Touchstone Energy Cooperative. TrackerSled will collaborate with these organizations to disseminate information about its possibilities, including distributing toolkits that rural cooperatives with limited in-house engineering can use to initiate TrackerSled projects. NRECA has successfully promoted other solar programs this way, including the SUNDA initiative, which concluded successfully in 2018.
Electric co-ops can construct a TrackerSled farm much faster than they could build a traditional solar farm. TrackerSled is a pre-engineered modular solution agnostic to ground conditions. No extensive surveys above and below the ground are required. Instead of taking months, crews hired by co-ops can construct a 12-acre 3MW solar farm in only two weeks. Instead of driving piles in precise locations to exact elevations for permanent trackers, crews will easily tow TrackerSleds to any location on a farmer's field, linking them in columns.
Mobilizing a TrackerSled farm is efficient. While one team is assembling TrackerSleds at a central staging yard and then towing them into position, another crew will connect the skid-mounted advanced inverter and associated hardware to the grid and install the infrastructure spine that aggregates power from the TrackerSleds.
Developing a TrackerSled solar farm is comparatively painless. Developers of permanent solar farms wanting to sell wholesale electricity through an interconnection must wait an average of 2-1/2 years for approvals to begin construction. Electric co-ops have the autonomy to lease TrackerSleds directly or negotiate Power Purchase Agreements with solar developers.
Maintaining TrackerSled farms is straightforward. At the start of a new growing season, tractors will tow TrackerSleds across a central infrastructure spine to a newly planted cover crop field on an adjacent field. The farmer will then plant a cash crop on the vacated field, benefitting from the increased soil fertility left behind by the cover crop.
Tractors of all sizes can tow TrackerSleds. If a TrackerSled has skis filled with liquid ballast, crews can pump it to a newly relocated sled to lighten the load for a 200hp tractor. Alternatively, if a farmer has a 500hp tractor, they can tow 12-acres of permanently ballasted TrackerSleds in columns of five in one eight-hour shift.
Unlike permanent solar farms, TrackerSleds come equipped for the future. When the cost of batteries falls in the coming years, batteries can ballast TrackerSleds, allowing electric co-ops to store energy to shift the time of its use, obviating peaker plants. The storage can also help regulate voltage and frequency on the grid.
Unlike permanent solar farm trackers, TrackerSleds can link in columns on a terrain rolling in any direction, since crews join them together with universally-jointed torque tube connectors.
The US is drawing down carbon from the atmosphere at too slow a pace to avert climate change. If electric co-ops develop TrackerSled solar farms so their number doubles every four or five years, co-ops alone will reach the holy grail of 10,000 square miles of PV by 2047. At the same time, they will add over 2 million jobs to rural economies. At the same pace by 2050, regenerative farms will have sequestered enough carbon to return soils to their preindustrial levels.
This video playlist chronicles the development of the TrackerSled prototype