Why not produce food and energy at the same time, and in the same place? That is the essential idea of ‘agrivoltaics’, which is catching on around the world as farmers increasingly worry about water shortages and renewable resource production increases.
And it may actually solve some disputes that have arisen over land use. “In many parts of the world where fertile land is scarce, agriculture and solar developers have fought over available space,” says Just Have A Think. ”What each party might have been missing all along is that it could be more profitable for both of them if they work together instead. And that may also just be the answer to the existential crisis being faced by so many farms across the United States and around the world.”
The idea is to use the land underneath solar panels to grow crops, and research suggests that not only does it increase plant production, but it also may improve energy generation by the panels. The solar panels are attached to arrays that are tall enough to allow farm production to take place below. Today’s panels can be made translucent or able to be operated mechanically to control how much light is absorbed by the panels and how much reaches the crops, according to a great summary article in Renew magazine. The panels can also protect crops from such extreme weather conditions as storms, drought, and hail.
In a Now This video called Agrivoltaics: Solar Panels Bring Life to Struggling Farms, US farmer Byron Kominek talks about how he came to set up Jack’s Solar Garden on his farm in Boulder County, Colorado. His family has run the farm since 1972 but in 2017, it was clear that they needed to farm differently in order to save the farm. He needed to get the land zoning changed so he could install the solar panels, and he got an enthusiastic response from the county land commissioners. Jack’s solar garden will allow him to grow crops and earn revenue to support his farming, even as people in Boulder save money on their electric bills.
(And why Jack’s Solar Garden? “Jack Stingerie, my grandfather, purchased our family’s 24-acre farm in Boulder County in 1972. He retired here and farmed hay and alfalfa until he passed away in 1980. Since then, the farm has passed to his daughter and my mother, Eloise Kominek. In 2018, Kurt Kominek, my father, and I founded Jack’s Solar Garden in memory of and thanks to Jack for the opportunity to do more with this land for our community.”)
Greg Barron-Gafford of the University of Arizona explains that putting up the solar panels creates a whole new microclimate for plants, dialling back heat stress and allowing farmers to be better stewards of existing water resources. The plants grown in a shady environment have larger leaves than the plants grown in the open.
It is part of thinking both about solutions for sustainable agriculture as the climate warms, and realizing that only putting solar panels on top of houses limits the capacity to generate renewable electricity.
When Kominek finished installing the panels in the fall of 2020, he was already thinking ahead to the future – training young people to use agrovoltaics to grow crops, creating a new skilled agricultural occupation.He hopes that his project will be just the first of many in the US.
In Germany, Fabian Karthaus grew up knowing about photovoltaics. But he works off the farm because growing the crops the old way didn’t feed a family. He started growing blueberries and raspberries under a roof of solar panels as a way of operating the farm “in a meaningful way,” he told Deutsche Welle. And he thinks that being shaded could increase yields, especially as the summers get hotter and it becomes more vital to conserve water. “We once measured it here. The evaporation is about a quarter compared to plants in the open field,” he said.
With 750 kilowatts of power, the system generates about 640,000 kilowatt hours a year – equivalent to the electricity needs of 160 households. Karthaus gets just under €0.06 ($0.07) per kWh for feeding it into the grid but wants to use some of it himself to operate his own refrigeration and freeze-drying systems. If he had to buy the electricity from the energy supplier, that would cost him around €0.25 per kWh.
Agrovoltaics has been growing around the world over the past decade. Max Trommelsdorff, an expert in agrivoltaics at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Freiburg, sees huge potential for agrivoltaics worldwide. There are already some agrivoltaic plants in Europe, Mali, Gambia and Chile; but most are in Asia.
The world’s largest plant, with a capacity of around 1,000 megawatts and covering 20 square kilometers (about 8 square miles), is on the edge of the Gobi Desert in China, and goji berries are being cultivated as a way to help make the earth fertile again.
In Japan, which has been in the forefront when it comes to agrivoltaics, farmers are already harvesting from more than 2,000 agrivoltaics systems.
In Europe, France is a pioneer, especially in winegrowing, where government subsidizes modular roofs to protect vines from sun and heat due to climate change.
One of the big benefits of agrivoltaics is that it can help stop the exodus of rural farmers by creating prospects for the rural population as well as giving the farmers an additional source of income.
Power Above, Berries Below: Farmers Reap Double Benefits With Solar Power in Fields. Deutsche Welle, Aug. 10, 2021
Sharing the sky: The case for agrivoltaics. Renew, Jan. 6, 2021
Agrivoltaics: Solar Panels Bring Life to Struggling Farms. Now This, Sep. 7, 2020
Agrivoltaics. An economic lifeline for American farmers? Just Have A Think, May 16, 2021
Kenya to use solar panels to boost crops by ‘harvesting the sun twice’. The Guardian, Feb. 22, 2022.
These Farms Are Living a Double Life. Reasons to be Cheerful, Jun. 10, 2022
Farming for crops — and for solar power. Axios, Sep. 12, 2022.
Spanish Vineyards Use Solar Panels to Protect Wine Grapes. Ecowatch, Oct. 7, 2022.
With agrivoltaics ‘we don’t have to choose between solar power and producing food’. Reuters, Mar. 20, 2023