Pop-Up Solar Farm Shows Promise for Increasing Profitability, Energy Independence
A company in Cook County was recently named a semi-finalist in the 2023 Ag Innovation Challenge by the American Farm Bureau Federation® and Farm Credit, a national business competition that showcases U.S. startups developing innovative solutions that address challenges facing America’s farmers, ranchers, and rural communities. TrackerSled, which is based in Oak Park and is a Cook County Farm Bureau® member, introduced a prefabricated, onsite assembly pop-up solar farm called the SunFarmor at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Annual Convention in San Juan, Puerto Rico in January where the final award winners were announced.
Lawrence Kearns, founder and CEO of TrackerSled is an architect who specializes in projects that mix social, economic, and environmental aspects. He designed the product and has been developing it since 2019.
“TrackerSled licenses EPCs (renewable energy contractors) to build ‘pop-up’ solar farms for farmers in weeks, not months or years, so they can become energy independent. Farmers use the tax credits of the Inflation Reduction Act to pay for up to 50% of the cost and grid interconnection,” Kearns explained. “To become energy independent, farmers can use additional tax credits to pay for 30% of a containerized ammonia plant for fuel and fertilizer. A 3.5-acre solar farm will produce all the energy, fuel, and fertilizer required to operate a 1,000-acre conventional farm or a 2,000-acre regenerative farm.”
Unfortunately, TrackSled didn’t make it to the Final Four in the competition, which would have meant more funds to assist in his venture. However, as a top ten finalist, TrackerSled was awarded $10,000. As part of the competition, Kearns presented a scaled model of a SunFarmor module and made a seven-minute pitch in front of three judges (a banker, an agrochemical representative, and a market researcher).
“In solar-friendly states like Illinois, farmers can make up to 50% returns on the solar farm alone, selling surplus energy back to their electric co-op below retail prices,” as explained on the TrackerSled website, “But by the end of the decade, farmers can use that power to make carbon-free fuel and nitrogen fertilizer on their farms with containerized hydrogen/ammonia plants. In this case, their entire farm is earning more profit.”
At 50 feet long, each SunFarmor module is made up of stacked tub girders, panel tables, and solar reflectors with parts that can be assembled easily and towed by tractor to any area of a farm. Modules can be linked together to create a larger system based on the size of the needs of a specific farm. A SunFarmor system is currently in place in a southwest Michigan farm powering a 400-acre organic farm.
“Every farmer I talked to during the conference encouraged me to continue to develop the idea,” said Kearns. “I sat next to a Wisconsin farmer during Secretary Vilsack's speech. When Secretary Vilsak encouraged the audience to adopt practices that promoted independence and self-reliance, he turned to me and said, ‘he's talking about you.’”
TrackerSled founder and CEO Larry Kearns explains to judges how SunFarmor, a modular mobile solar energy system, can increase profitability and energy independence by supplying farmers with a means to generate their inputs on their farms. (AFBF photo) Photo/cutline from FarmWeek
Carrie Steinweg is a freelance writer, author, blogger, and photographer living in Chicago’s south suburbs with her husband and five sons. Her work has appeared in dozens of print and online publications and she is the author of seven books. A passionate foodie, Carrie thoroughly enjoys traveling and visiting new restaurants and craft breweries, attending food festivals, and trying out new recipes and kitchen gadgets. She writes about her food experiences at ChicagoFoodieSisters.com.