Is agrivoltaic farming the future of food and energy?

The world has a problem. We face shortages of water, energy and food in the coming years. But the wheels are turning to find solutions to all these problems. Not surprisingly, solar energy is at the heart of the discussion, especially when it comes to agriculture.

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What is agrivoltaic?

Enter agrivoltaics. The prefix “agri-” refers to food production, while the suffix “-voltaics” relates to energy production. Together they make up agrivoltaics, which is the combination of solar energy production together with crops. In this new area, solar panels are woven into the agricultural landscape, placed between plants or just above them, depending on the location and type of plants. Agrivoltaics is also seen as solar panels on top of greenhouses.

Related: California Installs Solar Panels Over Canals

It may seem like a strange combination to create renewable energy in the middle of farmland, but science shows that it is actually beneficial for farmers, food consumers and the environment. Some of the benefits may surprise you.

Produces energy

An obvious advantage of agrivoltaics is that it relies on solar panels to create energy. This energy can then be used to power irrigation pumps, barn lights, the house, farm equipment and more. If there is a surplus, it can be sold back to the grid or stored in batteries. Since it is renewable energy, it is a clean source and an unlimited supply.

Increases food production

The relationship between crops and solar panels is surprisingly symbiotic. Where we once used fields solely for crop production, the science of agrovoltaic systems allows the panels to enhance plants while still pumping out power. Plants such as tomatoes, peppers, berries and vines benefit from the extra shade the panels provide. Since they are less stressed in a more protected environment, they give a higher harvest.

Solar panels on a field with sheep grazing below

Reduces water consumption

The cover also lowers the temperature under the solar panels. Plants use less water as they get a reprieve from the relentless sun. Even plants that require full sun have a light saturation point where they are no longer able to synthesize it. Traditionally, this means that sunlight is wasted and plants are susceptible to overheating. In response, plants soak up additional water to deal with the drought-like conditions. Photovoltaic panels work to limit this waste and reduce water consumption along the way. We have seen this idea in other areas where solar panels are placed over waterways to reduce evaporation and make full use of the land.

Higher energy production

That cooling under the panels also helps maximize energy production by making the solar panels work more efficiently. The plant environment is much cooler than hard soil, providing temperature control that maximizes energy production. The water the plants transpire also contributes to the cooling effect.

Fulfills scarcity of land

Agrovoltaic systems make the best use of available land by growing food crops and producing energy at the same time with the same amount of space. One does not take away from the other. It is a process that works well in areas with limited soil availability. Instead of choosing between agriculture and renewable energy production, we can have both.

Financial savings for farmers

In addition, the upfront investment provides a return in energy savings, with agrovoltaic systems generally paying for themselves in around 14 years. In addition to energy savings, farmers also save on water costs. This is seen through lower ground temperatures. Less heat not only means that the plants drink less, but less evaporation also occurs.

On the other side of the financial coin, agrovoltaic systems have been shown to increase profits for farmers with higher crop yields. If a farmer used solar energy, that means double the crop and double the energy. Think about it like this. Traditionally, a farmer could have a field with crop A and a field with solar panels. With agrovoltaics, the farmer now has two fields of crops and two fields of energy production, doubling the production of each.

Top shot, rows of solar panels on a grassy field

Better for the environment

Clean energy production offers the benefits of electricity without air pollution, unlike that caused by fossil fuels. With the current and ongoing water crisis, agrovoltaics can also be part of the water saving solution.

Where are agrovoltaic processes used?

Currently, China holds the title for the world’s largest agrovoltaic project. It is an extensive system of solar panels placed over the regional goji berries.

According to Solar Plaze, “The massive 640 MW project is said to have contributed to reducing soil moisture evaporation by between 30% and 40%, as well as improving the regional climate and enhancing the region’s ecosystem by increasing biodiversity.”

Other countries are also working on agrovoltaic systems. India, Malaysia, Taiwan and France all have projects underway. Oregon State University has an agrovoltaic farm in Aurora, Oregon. Small farms around the world are also adopting this practice.

There are a host of benefits to embrace with agrovoltaic practices. Although it is still basically an experiment in its youth, one problem that arose is challenges in moving farm equipment through the fields. Researchers address this by adjusting the height of the solar panels while seeing the same protective and symbiotic results.

Via Green Day Power

Images via Pexels and Pixabay

William

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