Climate change affects everyone and farmers are feeling the pressure now more than ever. Higher temperatures, dwindling water supplies, and a challenging economy are pushing farmers to explore new revenue streams and opportunities for their land.
What is agrivoltaics?
Local solar energy production and resilient food systems can, and arguably should, go hand-in-hand when possible. Responsible land management practices not only maximize the benefits of distributed localized solar energy, it also provides a plentitude of additional benefits for the local community. Agrivoltaics is the term used to describe co-located solar photovoltaics and agricultural projects. These agricultural projects can vary from food production to animal grazing sites to pollinator habitat. This article will focus on food production benefits. While just a small subset of solar developers are exploring agrivoltaics, it is likely a trend that will continue out of sheer necessity as land prices continue to rise and large open land becomes more scarce.
What challenges can agrivoltaics address?
Rising land costs
By co-locating a solar power plant with other land uses, communities and landowners can maximize the benefits of a given space. All too often, the land underneath solar modules is considered dead space. The ground underneath solar panels is graded and loaded with gravel or allowed to lay fallow, which typically means O&M companies will be responsible for constant vegetation mitigation via herbicides, mowing, or both. That often costs money and does not provide much benefit.
Using a solar power plant for additional uses allows landowners to stack functions, meaning the land is serving many functions. This increases resiliency and allows for multiple revenue generation streams.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2020 was the second warmest year on record and the ten warmest years on record have occurred since 2005. Rising temperatures have hit farmers especially hard.
Growing food underneath solar arrays keeps vegetation cool and partially shaded in scorching summer months as well as reduces temperatures around the solar panels. High temperatures inversely affect module voltage which will reduce the power output and thus efficiency of solar panels. Co-locating vegetation and solar modules can improve outcomes for both food and energy production.
Drought and reduced precipitation
55% of the lower 48 states in the US were in drought at the end 2021, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System. Additionally, 189 million acres of crops were experiencing drought conditions. Through the co-location of food crops underneath solar panels, farmers are able to use less water to irrigate. Research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory indicates that soil maintains moisture for longer when underneath solar panels as they are shading and creating more humid microclimates. Farmers can then use less water to maintain their fields.
In closing, agrivoltaics is a potent solution for the challenges of climate change. Solar power plants produce clean energy locally without greenhouse gas emissions. As the cost of solar energy is dropping rapidly, the costs and challenges of finding large swaths of land for solar farms are increasing. Co-locating solar and agricultural projects allows for the stacking of functions, maximizing the yield of a given space. While agrivoltaics increases the complexity of a solar project, the early research of the benefits are indicating that the juice can be well worth the squeeze.