Regenerative Energy® in Chattanooga: Making Solar Do More®

Posted by Chris Ann Lunghino | June 15, 2021

Nashville-based utility-scale solar developer Silicon Ranch is committed to building lasting and transformative relationships with its communities, its partners, and the land it owns

Tyler Menne, long-time Chattanooga resident and owner of Appalachian Land Design, remembers the first in-person conversation he ever had with Silicon Ranch. That happened in 2012, when he met with then-intern Luke Wilkinson to discuss the opportunity for Menne to provide mowing services for the company. “Luke told me that Silicon Ranch was focused on building great relationships with its partners,” Menne recalled when we talked recently. “And that has definitely come to pass over the nine years that we’ve managed the land housing the Volkswagen Chattanooga solar plant together.”

Thanks to Silicon Ranch’s equally sincere commitment to the land it owns, along with Menne’s passion for and training in agriculture and plant science, this already solid relationship is catapulting to a new level this year as they innovate together to make solar do more in Chattanooga and beyond through Silicon Ranch’s Regenerative Energy® platform. A transformative, holistic approach to agrivoltaics, Regenerative Energy® co-locates solar panels and climate-smart regenerative agriculture on one piece of land to produce two crops — clean solar energy and pasture-raised, grass fed meat. The platform restores functioning grassland ecosystems and delivers additional valuable benefits, including sequestering carbon and restoring healthy, carbon-rich soils, increasing water quality, and enhancing biodiversity — all this while revitalizing communities and creating new jobs for both established and aspiring ranchers and farmers.

A revolutionary project for solar land management

The Volkswagen Chattanooga solar power plant is nestled between a forest, a wetland, and Volkswagen’s LEED certified auto manufacturing and assembly plant. The 7.6 MWac solar plant provides 13.5 GWh annually to help power the auto plant.

Silicon Ranch built the solar power plant in 2012 on a brownfield – a groundbreaking practice at the time. The land formerly housed the Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant, where TNT was produced for 25 years beginning in 1942, initially to supply ammunition for Allied Forces during World War II. Later, the facility supported a chemical fertilizer production facility for two decades, from 1962 to 1982.

In partnership with Menne, Silicon Ranch has sustained the 79 acres housing the solar plant, including its healthy wetland and forest areas, for nine years, without the use of any chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. The vegetation has thrived, despite the high clay content of the soils. Using conventional mowing, Menne has diligently maintained the vegetation to ensure that it doesn’t shade the solar panels for this entire period. And he’s reveled in the abundant biodiversity, including so many blackberry bushes, he told me, that you couldn’t pick them all, even if you had a crew. Wildlife has flourished under the partners’ watch as well. “I keep a turkey call in the truck,” Menne said. “I see turkeys, deer, birds, hundreds of barn swallows constantly swooping, late night bats, snakes, raccoons, coyotes, and red tail hawks.“ He sometimes even sees eagles flying over the wetlands outside the solar array.

A revolutionary project for Chattanooga

Access to clean, cost-effective renewable energy to help power its manufacturing and assembly plant was critical to Volkswagen’s decision to site its plant in Chattanooga back in 2011. And the Volkswagen plant has proven to be critical to Chattanooga’s community and economy. The auto plant employs over 4,000 people and spurred additional economic development in the area. Amazon, Nippon Paint, and numerous other businesses have followed in Volkswagen’s footsteps, choosing to call the Chattanooga region home. These businesses make capital investments, generate new tax revenues that support local schools and infrastructure, and create jobs that pay good wages. As new jobs boost incomes, the local economy benefits—people spend their money at retailers, grocery stores, healthcare providers, and personal service providers.

“Volkswagen’s impact on Chattanooga has been huge,” Menne told me. “It helped bring a lot of new businesses to the city, including Amazon. And it’s a staple in the town. Volkswagen is an outdoor company, and Chattanooga has been named “Best Town Ever” two times by Outside magazine. There are VW emblems all over the place.”

Transforming a brownfield ammunitions factory site into healthy, productive agricultural land, charting a new path for Menne and for the solar industry

Menne feels a sense of ownership for the Volkswagen project—his relationship with it, and with Silicon Ranch, go way beyond the typical bond of a land maintenance vendor. “I have enormous sweat equity in [the project], and it has helped put food on the table for me and my employees for almost a decade,” he explained. Despite Menne’s deep ties to the project and its value to his employees and him, a few months ago, as the date for renewing his mowing contract approached, Menne considered either opting out of the project altogether or negotiating a shorter term contract, with significantly higher rates to be paid by Silicon Ranch. His fuel, labor, and insurance costs have all increased by close to 50% over time, and they continue to rise. The physical challenge of mowing and weed whacking for 10 hours a day also influenced his thinking. “Mowing and weed eating had become stressful,” Menne said. “Solar panels aren’t easy to get under, and I’m six feet tall.”

Fortunately, before he had to make either of these undesirable choices, he received a call from Silicon Ranch’s Director of Regenerative Energy®, Michael Baute. Baute called to talk with Menne about the company’s plans to transition the Volkswagen Chattanooga solar plant land management practice from conventional mowing to Regenerative Energy®.

Transitioning to a new model provides an opportunity for growth and restoration

When Baute suggested that Menne could continue maintaining the vegetation at the Volkswagen solar plant, using holistic planned sheep grazing and other regenerative practices rather than mowing and weed eating, Menne jumped at the opportunity. “I graduated from the University of Tennessee at Martin with degrees in agriculture and plant science, and I’ve used goats and sheep to clear the vegetation on my own land in the past,” Menne explained. “And besides being costly and labor intensive, mowing is boring.”

Menne says he’s eager to make use of his degrees and expertise to do something new and different in a way that recognizes that everything is connected, that everything goes full circle in this world. “We’ll be putting nutrients back in the ground, transforming land that previously housed a munitions plant that helped fight Germans during World War II and then a chemical fertilizer factory into healthy, chemical-free agricultural land that is now home to a German auto manufacturer that is operating a LEED certified factory. Talk about things going full circle!”

“I’m a strong believer in agriculture. If you eat, you’re involved in agriculture.”

Menne sees the potential for lots more opportunity coming his way, as Silicon Ranch aims to manage all of its solar farms in the region regeneratively. He would like to build capacity so that he can eventually serve any of the projects that are within 150 miles of Chattanooga. Menne sounds giddy as he talks about the future. “I hope to be able to hire young agriculture students and recent graduates to help with the animal science and teach them how to farm regeneratively. The thought of working with the land to put food on the table and being able to contribute to the resilience of the local economy and food system has given me a new lease on life.” The opportunity that Regenerative Energy® provides to young people, or people new to the agriculture industry, is significant because agriculture is a capital-intensive industry, with high barriers to entry.

New practices come with the opportunity to learn, adapt, and respond, and Regenerative Energy® is no exception

Last month, in collaboration with Silicon Ranch’s Regenerative Energy® team, Menne started managing the Volkswagen Chattanooga solar farm regeneratively, beginning with the implementation of holistic planned grazing, which will result in valuable ecological, social, and economic benefits.

Holistic planned grazing is a key regenerative agriculture practice that involves managing livestock in a way that mimics the patterns of wild migrating herds of animals. Wild herds stay packed closely together for protection, eat the vegetation part way down (rather than eating it down to the ground), disturb the soil lightly with their hooves, aerating it, and then move on to another pasture, allowing the previous pasture time to recover. As they graze, they disperse seeds and naturally fertilize the soil with their urine and manure, promoting new plant growth. This type of grazing leads to important ecological benefits, including revitalized soils, increased biodiversity, sequestered carbon, and improved water quality.

To facilitate the transition to Regenerative Energy® and the incorporation of holistic planned grazing on the solar farm, Silicon Ranch is investing in animal-friendly infrastructure, including inverter exclosures, livestock fencing, and a water meter and tap. New practices come with the opportunity to learn, adapt, and respond, and Regenerative Energy® is no exception.

Repurposing a 275-gallon sunflower seed oil container to serve as a water tank

When technical issues with accessing the water main adjacent to the solar farm created an obstacle for the initial plan for adding water infrastructure, the team collaborated with Chattanooga’s Eastside Utility District to come up with an alternative plan. Menne says a meter and tap will soon be installed at a water main located about 100 yards from the solar farm from which he will fill a tank that he can tow the short distance to the solar farm to water the sheep. Consistent with regenerative principles, rather than using a new water tank, he will be filling a repurposed 275-gallon sunflower seed oil container, towing the tank to the plant using a repurposed used jet-ski trailer, then moving the tank from pasture to pasture as the sheep move. See the water system in action in this video.

Menne and three of his employees set up fencing to subdivide the solar farm land into paddocks so that they can manage livestock movement to mimic wild migrating herds. Typically, fifty contented sheep roam and graze the land, one paddock at a time. Menne carefully controls livestock density and how long and how frequently a particular paddock is grazed, with a focus on avoiding over-grazing and optimizing the recovery time of grazed plants. The solar plant is only eight minutes from Menne’s house and farm, making it easy for him to supervise the sheep and monitor the land and vegetation, ensuring that sheep have adequate water and that he moves the sheep to a new paddock at the optimal time.

Menne gets great pleasure from spending time with the sheep, way more pleasure than he did spending time with mowers.

“[The sheep] are hard not to fall in love with, I can tell you that – their expressions are the cutest.”

Procuring sheep and other Regenerative Energy® necessities locally

Menne is also excited to see and be a part of Regenerative Energy’s social and economic benefits, which accrue not only to him and his employees, but also to other local families and businesses. To start, he’ll use a local farm vet, and he’s procuring fencing and water troughs, as well as the sheep themselves, locally. “I bought 30 sheep from a lady I met at the bank a couple of weeks ago,” Menne told me, chuckling. When the woman overheard him telling the teller that he needed a certified check to purchase eight sheep, Menne remembers that she called out, “Do you need more sheep? I have 30 sheep that I really need to sell for my elderly mom. I’d love for you to take these off my hands.”

Measuring ecological impacts

Later this year, Silicon Ranch’s Regenerative Energy® team will be measuring and third-party-verifying ecological outcomes at the project using the Savory Institute’s Ecological Outcome Verification assessment methodology. This methodology was developed in collaboration with leading soil scientists, ecologists, agronomists, and an extensive network of regenerative land managers around the world. It measures the health of the land as a living system through indicators of land regeneration, including sol health, biodiversity, and ecosystem function. Land housing Silicon Ranch solar plants in the region is the first and only solar land to be certified as ‘regenerative’ by the Savory Institute to date.

Providing the solar industry with the opportunity to make a significant contribution to vital ecosystem restoration and carbon sequestration efforts

With this transition at the Volkswagen Chattanooga project, Silicon Ranch, the Regenerative Energy® team, and its committed partner, Tyler Menne of Appalachian Land Design, are blazing a new trail for the solar industry in dual-use solar energy by integrating regenerative agriculture production into what is already a revolutionary utility-scale solar energy project. And since solar power plants are projected to occupy over six million acres of land globally in the next decade, Regenerative Energy® offers the solar industry the opportunity to make a significant contribution to vital ecosystem restoration and carbon sequestration efforts, and to do so quickly.

“Silicon Ranch has always prioritized strong, lasting relationships with our communities, our partners, like Tyler, and our land,” says Baute, Silicon Ranch’s Director of Regenerative Energy. “Regenerative Energy® adds further depth to these relationships, while providing the entire solar industry with the opportunity to become synonymous with not only low-carbon energy production, but also carbon sequestration, biodiversity, healthy soil, and local decentralized food production.”

This video highlights the water system in action at the Volkswagen Chattanooga Solar Project.

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