The world has a problem. We’re facing water, energy and food shortages in the upcoming years. But the wheels are turning to find solutions for all of these issues. Not surprisingly, solar power is at the heart of the discussion, especially as it pertains to agriculture

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What is agrivoltaics?

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 power production alongside crops. In this emerging field, solar panel arrays are interwoven into the agricultural landscape, placed between plants or right over the top of them, depending on the location and the type of plants. Agrivoltaics is also seen as solar panels on top of greenhouses. 

Related: California is installing solar panels over canals

It might seem like a strange combination to create renewable energy in the middle of agricultural land, but science shows it’s actually beneficial to farmers, food consumers and the environment. Some of the advantages may surprise you. 

Produces energy

One 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’s an excess, it can be sold back to the grid or stored in batteries. Since it’s renewable energy, it’s a clean source and an unlimited supply. 

Enhances food production

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

Solar panels on a field with sheep grazing underneath

Reduces water usage

Similarly, the sheltering lowers the temperature below 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 capable of synthesizing it. Traditionally this means the sunlight goes to waste 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 that waste, reducing water consumption along the way. We’ve seen this idea in other areas, where solar panels are being placed over waterways to decrease evaporation and make full use of the land space. 

Higher energy production

That cooling beneath 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 output. The water the plants transpire also contributes to the cooling effect. 

Accommodates land scarcity

Agrivoltaic systems make the most of available land by growing food crops and producing energy at the same time, with the same amount of space. One doesn’t take away from another. It’s a process that works well in areas with limited land availability. Rather than choosing between agriculture and renewable energy production, we can have both. 

Financial savings for farmers

Additionally, the upfront investment sees a return in energy savings, with agrivoltaic systems generally paying for themselves in about 14 years. In addition to energy savings, farmers save on water costs too. This is seen through lower soil temperatures. Less heat not only means the plants drink less, but less evaporation occurs as well. 

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

Shot from above, rows of solar panel on a field of grass

Better for the environment

Clean energy production brings the benefit of power without air pollution, unlike that caused by fossil fuels. With the current and ongoing water crisis, agrivoltaics can be part of the water conservation solution too. 

Where are agrivoltaic processes being used?

Currently, China holds the title for the world’s largest agrivoltaic project. It’s a comprehensive system of photovoltaic panels placed over the regional goji berries.

According to Solar Plaze, “The massive 640 MW project is said to have helped to reduce land moisture evaporation by between 30% and 40%, as well as improve the regional climate and better the region’s ecosystem by increasing biodiversity.”

Other countries are dabbling in agrivoltaic systems too. India, Malaysia, Taiwan and France all have projects in the works. Oregon State University has an agrivoltaic farm in Aurora, Oregon. Small farms around the world are also adopting the practice. 

There are a host of benefits to embrace with agrivoltaic practices. While it’s still basically an experiment in its youth, one issue that arose is challenges in moving agricultural equipment through the fields. Scientists are addressing this by adjusting the height of the solar panels while seeing the same protective and symbiotic results. 

Via Green Day Power

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