Transforming Energy: The NREL Podcast

Energy Resilience in Ukraine, Agrivoltaics in Florida, and Barriers to Solar on Tribal Land

August 09, 2023 The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Season 1 Episode 3
Transforming Energy: The NREL Podcast
Energy Resilience in Ukraine, Agrivoltaics in Florida, and Barriers to Solar on Tribal Land
Show Notes Transcript

Hosts Taylor Mankle and Kerrin Jeromin discuss four recent stories from NREL:  

This episode was hosted by Kerrin Jeromin and Taylor Mankle, written and produced by Allison Montroy and Kaitlyn Stottler, and edited by Joe DelNero and Brittany Falch. Graphics are by Brittnee Gayet. Our title music is written and performed by Ted Vaca and episode music by Chuck Kurnik, Jim Riley, and Mark Sanseverino of Drift BC. Transforming Energy: The NREL Podcast is created by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. We express our gratitude and acknowledge that the land we are on is the traditional and ancestral homelands of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Ute peoples. Email us at Follow NREL on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Facebook.

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Kerrin: Welcome to Transforming Energy: The NREL Podcast, brought to you by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. We’re highlighting the latest in clean energy research happening at the lab. I’m Kerrin Jeromin.

Taylor: And I’m Taylor Mankle. Today is August 9, 2023—but to start this episode, we’re traveling back a bit, to February 2022: to the day Russia invaded Ukraine. 

Kerrin: When the invasion happened, Ukraine’s grid operators were entering into what’s called island mode—or a state of autonomy from other grid systems. This was a trial, and part of a months-long plan to disconnect from the Russian grid, and synchronize with the European Union’s. 

Taylor: Islanding and then synchronizing to another grid requires a precise match of the frequency, phase, and voltage or electric current of that grid. And failure could be disastrous, resulting in a blackout and weeks of repair. Normally a process like this would take a country years. But after Russia’s initial invasion, Ukraine did it in a matter of weeks. 

Kerrin: And now, more than a year later, amid targets by missiles and other attacks, the power is still on in Ukraine. 

Taylor: Now you might be wondering what Ukraine’s grid has to do with our work here at NREL. And it’s all about resilience

Kerrin: Resilience, yes. NREL defines resilience as “a system’s ability to anticipate, prepare for, and adapt to changing conditions and withstand, respond to, and recover rapidly from disruptions through sustainable, adaptable, and holistic planning and technical solutions.” NREL has partnered with USAID—or the U.S. Agency for International Development—to offer support that will enable Ukraine to increase its energy independence and resilience by integrating more renewables into its energy mix. 

Taylor: And to be clear, NREL was collaborating with USAID in Ukraine since before the war. 

Kerrin: Right—originally, NREL and USAID were working on technical support and data analysis for distribution systems siting and project investment decisions. They also helped plan for bringing more wind and solar onto Ukraine’s nuclear-dominant system. But the needs changed.

Taylor: Currently, one of Ukraine’s priorities is keeping the lights on at places like hospitals and schools and having electricity supply in places where residents can charge personal electronics if they lose power at home, as well as send and receive emergency notifications. While the defense support for Ukraine gets a lot of attention, the technical support to Ukraine is crucial for Ukrainians to transition to clean energy in a systemic and resilient way. 

Kerrin: You know, NREL researcher Ilya Chernyakhovskiy said it well: 

Ilya Chernyakhovskiy: "I think one of the things is that the U.S. is supporting Ukraine with more than just weapons. And that we have technical expertise in the power system that is relevant to Ukraine and that will help Ukraine rebuild and integrate with Europe. And the US has a role to play there, and in particular the national labs.”

Taylor: Recently, NREL published solar resource data for Ukraine showing the average amount of sunlight received throughout the year. It’s available on NREL’s PV Watts software platform. 

Kerrin: The PV Watts software platform has actually been translated into the Ukrainian language so that any Ukrainian can see how much energy solar photovoltaic, or PV, panels on their building could generate. And by early next year, wind resource data should be available as well. 

Taylor: And the country continues to look ahead: Ukraine set a goal back in March to have 50% of its power from renewable energy sources and 50% from nuclear energy by 2035. 

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Kerrin: Spinning the globe over to another corner of the world, NREL researchers in Florida are helping create plans to install solar panels on farms and houses of worship. They’ve partnered with a group called the Black Farmers’ Collaborative. The group was founded by a pastor and advocate named Reverend Jerry G. Nealy and is based near Bealsville, Florida. 

Taylor: Bealsville was founded by newly freed enslaved people after the Civil War and has remained home to Black farmers ever since. Like other Black farming communities in Florida, the town is facing climate and energy challenges because of things like changing weather patterns, high energy costs, and food insecurity. 

Kerrin: Bealsville and the Black Farmers’ Collaborative applied for the Clean Energy to Communities Expert Match program and were paired with NREL to receive short-term technical support for achieving clean energy goals. 

Taylor: We love to hear that. And to provide some context, Clean Energy to Communities is a U.S. Department of Energy program, through which communities can apply for Expert Match, which basically means NREL and other national labs and experts provide free assistance over a short one-to-three month timeframe. It helps communities address clean energy challenges and understand their options. 

Kerrin: Right. And the Black Farmers Collaborative was one of dozens of communities that have applied for this and received that support so far. 

Taylor: NREL helped the collaborative narrow their focus to two solar-energy projects, one on a demonstration farm and the other developing a road map for installing solar panels on houses of worship in Florida. Then, they worked together to create designs and plans for implementing the projects, and prepared to apply for funding to build!

Kerrin: To build, that’s wonderful! One of those two projects was on a 14-and-a-half-acre demonstration farm called Seed Time Harvest Farms. Founder Cetta Barnhart grows citrus trees, leafy greens, other produce, and soon, will also have solar panels, as well. Barnhart worked with researchers to design six options for agrivoltaics. Any guesses on that one?

Taylor: Yeah, Kerrin, agrivoltaics is a cool word and pretty much what it sounds like too. It’s a combination of agriculture and photovoltaics. It’s when solar panels and crops or livestock coexist on the same farmland. It’s a mutual beneficial situation. The solar panels create energy while also providing space for native habitats, or providing partial shade for crops to increase soil moisture levels, or shade for grazing animals. And those grazing animals can keep plant growth under the solar panels under control. 

Kerrin: Barnhart called agrivoltaics a game-changer. 

Cetta Barnhart: "I had already looked into doing solar on my property and was just looking at it to have solar as the backup and those resiliency options for my family because of the long term benefits of having solar on my land. But when we started talking as a team and then we found out about the agrivoltaics portion of how that can be incorporated into farming, it really brought forth a bigger and better opportunity to not just benefit by having it but also sharing that with other farmers."

Kerrin: She said that not only do agrivoltaic systems have the potential to increase income for farmers, which is so important, but they provide a chance to build wealth for future generations. And the Collaborative hopes Barnhart’s agrivoltaics becomes a model for other farmers who are curious about solar energy systems. 

Taylor: Before applying for the program, the Black Farmers Collaborative spent nearly two years building a relationship with NREL researchers and honing their energy priorities. Dana-Marie Thomas, who is an NREL resilience researcher and the community lead for NREL’s work in Bealsville, spoke about that time working with the Black Farmers Collaborative.

Dana-Marie Thomas: “I felt it—it was like personal and professional, but having come from and growing up and seeing my grandfather and my aunts and uncles, I've picked, uh, strawberries, blueberries, planted collards, I've you know, I'm even. I'm from New Jersey State. I've been down South and I wanted to get my hands dirty and helping this group of black farmers.”

Kerrin: You know, it is really important to recognize that even when researchers enter Black communities—and any community for that matter—with good intentions, it take time to develop trust. And that was one of the main concerns from the Black Farmers’ Collaborative.

Thomas: “… they expressed their concerns about the fertilizer runoff into the water sources and exposure to pollution, and they talked about a lack of trust in working with organizations like NREL and also they talked about the generational issues within the community.”

Taylor: Trust and community investment was key to the success of this program, as it is to much of NREL’s place-based work. And ultimately, the hope is that these projects will have a rippling and uplifting effect in the community—providing things like new educational opportunities for youth, and career opportunities for formerly incarcerated people. 

Kerrin: All this just makes sense and makes me think how there’s no denying the power of community. 

Taylor: You’re absolutely right. And there’s no denying the power of powering communities with their own clean energy! 

Kerrin: So true. I happen to know a few folks working to do just that actually. 

Taylor: Hey me too! And one of them happens to be right next to me—Kerrin, when we’re not behind the mic here, you spend time working with NREL’s State, Local, and Tribal program.

Kerrin: That is correct! I really love this program. I kind of think of it as the arm that connects NREL’s technical expertise with jurisdictions and communities to co-developed energy solutions. Part of this program is analysis and support to advance clean energy, like solar, with tribes. Back in 2013, for instance, NREL found that five percent of the total solar photovoltaic potential in the United States is on tribal land.

Taylor: Wow. So what does that mean in terms of solar installation over the past decade? 

Kerrin: Well, there’s one example we can point to here. NREL caught up with Brandy Toft, who is the environmental director of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota. Toft shared why the tribe wanted to install a 200-kilowatt solar array that would offset energy bill costs for low-income residents. 

Brandy Toft: Tribes in general are stewards of the land. Where we're not only sovereigns, but we're stewards. And so, the whole aspect of wanting to do solar was just use less, use better.

Taylor: That sounds great! So, was the Leech Lake Band able to install the solar array and start harnessing solar energy? 

Kerrin: Well—yes—eventually. But there were some barriers along the way—regulatory barriers, in fact, which can make solar deployment more difficult, for many tribes. Even though so much of the total solar photovoltaic potential in the United States is on tribal land, it’s still somewhat under-utilized because of these barriers. 

Taylor: Let's break that down. What's a regulatory barrier?

Kerrin: Basically, it’s a rule or policy that dictates where, when and how you can build, in this case, a solar project. While these are beneficial in some instances, it can make the process more complicated to navigate. And the regulations can exist at various scales, from utility level, local government, tribal, state, regional, and federal levels. 

Taylor: That sounds like a lot of players involved. But also, by that definition, most if not all solar projects are bound to encounter regulatory barriers. Right?

Kerrin: Yes, exactly right. But projects located on tribal land might be affected differently or disproportionately. And that’s something NREL wanted to explore. NREL and the Midwest Tribal Energy Resources Association spent three years learning about these regulatory barriers and identifying potential solutions. More than 600 people participated—including regulators, utilities, tribes, and others. And the findings were published in a three-part guidebook that examined the barriers and provided short-term and long-term potential solutions. The full report is available to anyone at to make tribal solar energy deployment a smoother process for everyone involved.

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Taylor: Because this episode has been so community-centric, I feel like ending today with a fun fact about NREL’s community. 

Kerrin: I love a good fun fact! Bring it on Taylor.

Taylor: I read last week that there are 400 interns, count them 400, working at NREL this summer! It’s the largest cohort in lab history! 

Kerrin: That’s awesome—I thought the lab looked a little busier while walking onto campus today. We love our interns, and we got to celebrate them too, on July 27, which was National Intern Day. Did you know that? 

Taylor: Kerrin, I like to think every day is intern day. Especially here at NREL!

Kerrin: I love that idea! Wishing all the interns listening a belated happy intern day. And hey next time we see you will be August 23—which coincidentally is national Cuban sandwich day, Taylor, so we might have to celebrate that, too.  

Taylor: That is a great idea. I like what you’re getting at is, it’s time to say goodbye. Thanks, everyone, for tuning in to Transforming Energy: The NREL Podcast. We hope you’ll all join us again in two weeks for more news from the lab. 

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Kerrin: This episode was adapted from NREL news articles from June and July 2023 authored by Harrison Dreves, Sara Fall, Sarah Meehan, Laura Beshilas, Kaitlyn Stottler, and Isabel McCan. Our theme music is written and performed by Ted Vaca and episode music by Chuck Kurnik, Jim Riley, and Mark Sanseverino, of Drift BC. This podcast is produced by NREL’s Communications Office and recorded at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado. We express our gratitude and acknowledge that the land we are on is the traditional and ancestral homelands of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Ute peoples. We recognize and pay respect to the Indigenous peoples from our past, present, and future, and are grateful to those who have and continue to be stewards of this land. 

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