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Agrivoltaics: The GOAT of solar projects?

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In the 21st century, our world faces interconnected challenges, including potential energy shortages, increasing food insecurity, and an unpredictable climate. By 2050, we will need to significantly increase energy and food production to accommodate the growing global population, which is slated to exceed 10 billion by 2080. 

However, we also need to address these issues in an environmentally sustainable way. Can we generate more energy without contributing to global warming? Can we produce more food without depleting water resources and forests?

One potential solution is agrivoltaics — a concept that combines solar power generation with agriculture. What does agrivoltaics entail and how does it extend beyond the simple combination of farming and solar energy? What are its benefits and limitations, and how do we determine if it’s a suitable solution for a site? Let’s take a look.

Yes, there will be more photos of sheep and solar panels later.
(“Solar Grazing at Solar Shepherd in Massachusetts” by AgriSolar Clearinghouse.)

Isn’t agrivoltaics just “solar farming”?

It is not! First coined in 2011, agrivoltaics (sometimes spelled “agrovoltaics”) is an innovative approach that integrates solar with agriculture​. In an agrivoltaic system, solar panels are strategically installed over fertile farmland — high enough to allow machinery, livestock, and even crops beneath. 

This setup promotes concurrent solar energy generation and agricultural production on the same parcel of land. The PV panels provide a mix of sun and shade to the crops below, while the crops help moderate the microclimate underneath the panels, enhancing their performance and lifespan.

That sounds like “solar farming”

The concept of agrivoltaics is distinct from merely combining farming with solar power because it establishes a synergistic relationship between the two. Unlike standalone PV farms or traditional agriculture, agrivoltaics is specifically designed to optimize both energy production and crop yield:

  • The positioning, height, and spacing of solar panels is carefully calibrated to benefit the crops below.
  • The presence of crops offers benefits such as temperature moderation, potentially contributing to more efficient PV panel operation.
  • The plants act as a natural barrier, reducing the buildup of dust and debris on the panels’ surfaces, which can help maintain their performance over time.

This mutual enhancement is the essence of agrivoltaics.

What are the benefits of agrivoltaics?

We can all agree that the concept of agrivoltaics is cool. But, what specific benefits does it produce besides making for a nice headline next to a cute picture of sheep? Oh, just…

Agrivoltaics is more than just solar + sheep.
(“Solar Grazing with Happy Sheep” by AgriSolar Clearinghouse.)

Increased crop yields

By providing a controlled microclimate, agrivoltaic systems enhance crop yields. A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that total chiltepin fruit production was three times greater and cherry tomato production doubled when using agrivoltaic systems over more traditional farming methods. 

Water conservation

Water conservation is another crucial advantage. Water-use efficiency for jalapeños and cherry tomatoes is 157% and 65% greater, respectively, when using agrivoltaics instead of more conventional irrigation systems. It makes sense when you think about it: The solar panels reduce evaporation from both plants and soil, helping to conserve water  — a critical advantage in drought-prone regions​. 

Improved solar production

Agrivoltaics also improve solar energy production. PV panels in an agrivoltaic system were found to be about 16°F (9°C) cooler than a traditional panel array — enhancing their performance and efficiency​.

More efficient land use

It may seem obvious, but it’s worth saying out loud: Using land for energy generation and food production optimizes land use efficiency — try doing that with a traditional power plant. This is particularly beneficial as we strive to meet increasing global demand for food and energy, while minimizing the environmental impact of these resource-intensive activities.

Powering the farm with solar, and your body with healthy veggies.
(“AgriSolar crops at University of Massachusetts South Deerfield” by AgriSolar Clearinghouse.)

Considerations and limitations of agrivoltaics

Of course, every technology has its limitations and drawbacks — there are no magic beans (although, they’d probably grow nicely up the poles). While the benefits of agrivoltaics are promising, there are certain considerations and limitations to be aware of. 

Not all crops are suited to the partially shaded conditions under solar panels. Wheat, for one, requires a lot of sunlight and may not thrive in an agrivoltaic system​. 

The upfront cost of setting up an agrivoltaic system can also be a deterrent. Compared to conventional roof-mounted solar panels, agrivoltaic systems require larger, more complex mounting systems, which can cost up to three times more than flat roof PV installations. 

Agrivoltaics can involve complex mountings.
(“Elevated Racking System at Grafton Solar to Accommodate Specialty Crop Growth” by AgriSolar Clearinghouse.)

Additionally, the need for deeper steel foundations for stability and resilience in adverse weather conditions can contribute to higher overall carbon emissions during project development​​.

TL;DR? As with any major project, you have to weigh the financial and environmental factors carefully before going ahead with an agrivoltaic system.

Is agrivoltaics right for you and your clients?

Implementing agrivoltaics requires careful consideration of a number of factors, including: 

The location

The benefits of agrivoltaics are more pronounced in hot and drought-prone regions where PV panels provide shade and help the ground retain water​. 

The crops

What you want to cultivate also plays a role, since — not surprisingly — not all crops fare well under solar panels. While some crops, like cherry tomatoes and chiltepin peppers, thrive in agrivoltaic systems, others that require a lot of sunlight (like wheat) are often less suited to this approach​.

Crops like cherry tomatoes do especially well in agrivoltaic farms.
(“Agrivoltaics” by UC Davis College of Engineering.)

In closing…

Agrivoltaics represents a powerful combination that addresses the critical challenges of food and energy security. By intelligently integrating solar power generation with agriculture, it provides a practical and innovative solution that boosts crop yields, conserves water, and produces renewable energy — all in a smaller footprint. While the upfront costs might be high, the potential return on investment from increased crop yield and energy production can make it a worthwhile endeavor​. 

As global demands and the urgent challenges of climate change continue to mount, agrivoltaics emerges as a crucial solution. It offers a sustainable path forward, addressing both current needs and the long-term well-being of our planet. 

If you’re interested in exploring the potential of agrivoltaics further, or have more questions about what’s involved, let’s talk. You can schedule a quick chat by clicking here, or to talk right now, simply click the chat box at the bottom right and a real person will respond.

OK, one more for the road…
(“Solar Grazing between rows of Solar Panels” by AgriSolar Clearinghouse.)

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