You may have seen the word “Agrivoltaics” occasionally on the internet recently; or even if you haven’t, we’re here to explain what agrivoltaics are and how it can benefit the farming industry.
What are Agrivoltaics?
Agrivoltaics is a perfect combination of solar panels and plants on farmland. Agrivoltaics involves combining crops with photovoltaic panels, installed with enough height to allow farm machinery to pass underneath. The challenge is to generate crops and energy simultaneously and without conflict.1
In the Food-Energy-Water (FEW) Nexus, agrivoltaics delivers eco-friendly solutions:
1. The plants, protected by the solar panels from the worst of the midday sun’s rays, become little evaporative coolers on the landscape. They take up carbon for photosynthesis by opening up their pores, or stomata, while letting water escape from their leaves and create a cooler microclimate.
2. The solar panel modules can lose efficiency while operating under the blazing sun. The panels perform at a higher level – thanks to this cooler microclimate afforded by the plants. The panels, in turn, protect the plants from sunburn and dehydration.
The end results: a better crop yield and more efficient performance of the solar array.2
How does it benefit farmers?
Most people would think that having solar panels take up farmland would be a negative thing. The reason that agrivoltaics technology is so beneficial to farmers, is because they can farm and use the same space to generate money from solar production.3
What’s the impact on the environment?
Some issues with this technology is that the topsoil of farmland is stripped and panels are mounted on concrete pads. This impacts the amount of food that the land can now produce. Vegetables such as peppers, broccoli, and Swiss chard can only produce about 60% of the volume that they would under full sun. In addition, the solar panels only offer about half the power-generation capacity per acre, and the costs are higher.3
However, the combination of farming and solar power generation pay for themselves in approximately eight years, and pay off together in the long run.3
Future of Agrivoltaics
Global investment in solar power generation is growing very fast. Solar energy increased its share of global electricity generating capacity by 50 per cent in 2016 alone, overtaking growth in wind, gas and other renewable technologies. The cost of solar photovoltaic cells – the major capital cost in solar installations using that technology – has fallen 80 per cent since 2008. Agrivoltaics seems generally to be well suited to market gardening, perhaps less so to arable crops. The agrivoltaic system also reduces the maintenance issues associated with more closely-spaced solar panels and puts the land to productive agricultural use. However, there are still some issues with cultivation operations to be weighed up, such as limiting the size and efficiency of farm machinery that can be deployed under and between the frames.4
Only time will tell if agrivoltaics will take off in the farming industry. Agrivoltaics has both advantages and disadvantages to farmers, and perhaps more research and government adaptation of renewable energy rebates will push agrivoltaics to become more widespread.
1IRSTEA. (2019). Agrivoltaics – Combining farming with the production of sustainable energy. Retrieved from irstea.fr: https://www.irstea.fr/en/toutes-les-actualites/eaux/agriculture-energie-renouvelable-agrivoltaisme
2Research Communications, University of Arizona. (February 26, 2018). What is Agrivoltaics? Retrieved from research.arizona.edu: https://research.arizona.edu/stories/what-is-agrivoltaics
3Shemkus, Sarah. (January 22, 2019). Agrivoltaics: Solar panels on farms could be a win-win. Retrieved from civileats.com: https://civileats.com/2019/01/22/agrivoltaics-solar-panels-on-farms-could-be-a-win-win/
4Norton Rose Fulbright. (December 2017). Agrivoltaic: Solar powering the future of agriculture. Retrieved from nortonrosefulbright.com: https://www.nortonrosefulbright.com/en-ug/knowledge/publications/b54c815d/agrivoltaic—solar-powering-the-future-of-agriculture