I did wonder when someone was going to point out to Alberta premier Danielle Smith that there are alternatives to siting solar panels directly on the ground and thus taking farmland out of production. And this week, Tyee News did it with an excellent article about the potential of agrivoltaics.
Agrivoltaics sites solar panels so they provide cover for crops grown underneath them, even as they generate power. Crop yields increase, water and fertilizer requirements decrease, and farmers get additional income outside the growing season by selling solar electricity.
Research shows that converting just four per cent of Canada’s farmland to agrivoltaics can supply Canada’s electricity needs while creating a sustainable long-term food system for its entire population.
That could help feed the 5.8 million food-insecure Canadians, while allowing Canada to export more food at a time when extreme weather events are taking farmland out of production at a time when it’s needed most. But Canada, despite being an agricultural producer, lags Europe, Asia and the U.S. in using photovoltaic technology developed specifically for agriculture.
US studies have shown yield increases of more than 200% on farms that use agrivoltaics, mainly through lower water use, says Joshua Pearce, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Ivey Business School at Western, and leader of the university’s Free Appropriate Sustainable Technology research group.
“As we enter into an age of severe climate change and the impacts that will have on agriculture in Canada, having protection from being too hot actually makes a lot of sense,” says Pearce.
Jeremy Dresner of Energy Redesign says agrivoltaics’ ability to reduce water use in agriculture is particularly important in the Okanagan region where he is based, due to its propensity for wildfires. “You either have water for the fire service, or for irrigating crops, or for drinking, but not all three at once. We’re not seeing people go thirsty, but one of those elements is always missing,” he said.
At Canada’s first Agrivoltaics conference in December 2022, hosted in London, Ontario by Ivey’s Energy Policy and Management Centre, experts in renewable energy, farming, and food systems discussed the potential for agrivoltaics to feed Canada’s growing population while reducing its carbon footprint. This was the first conference on this topic ever held in North America.
Greenhouse gas emissions from growing food alone match the emission reduction targets outlined in the Paris Agreement and there’s a great need to transition farming to low-carbon technologies, said keynote speaker Claude Mindorff, director of development at PACE Canada LP, a global solar development and investment company that is currently building a solar farm in central Alberta.
“This is not wishful thinking – the technology already exists. We can literally take the components off the shelf and make this happen,” he said. “The opportunity exists and it’s an urgent opportunity.”
Dr. Pearce says a farmer’s initial capital outlay to install photovoltaic technology would be offset by higher crop yields and cost savings plus being able to sell surplus power at different times of the year – and with new solar projects now being designed to last for up to 50 years, the life of any additional income stream could be considerable. “This is an investment you can think of for your grandchildren.”
He believes photovoltaic power is the future of sustainable electricity generation. “The real advantage is that it works everywhere at every scale. You can provide power for your house through solar panels on the roof, for the farm by doing something like building a solar panel fence around a field, and you can power large cities or industry using large-scale agrivoltaics,” he says.
Solutions for a low-carbon future. Globe and Mail, Nov. 28, 2022
Agrivoltaic solar farms offer “shocking” benefits beyond producing energy. Dezeen, Sep. 30, 2022
Cover image: Ivey Enery Policy and Management Centre.