Agrivoltaics: A Win-Win for Food Production and Solar Energy
Tomorrow, solar panels won’t just line the interstate edges, they’ll also protect your caesar salad from the baking sun.
Driving down I-95, there is no end to the new installation of solar energy farms going in along the interstate or covering parking garages and commercial roofs. These highly efficient farms are a win-win, boosting the electrical grid, saving landowners money, and providing unexpected benefits including cooling buildings or protecting cars from heat.
Tomatoes being grown under solar panels in Austria. Asurnipal, CC BY-SA 4.0
Large-scale solar grids are relatively rare in farmland though, although wind farms and oil wells often dot the landscape. Agrivoltaics is the combination of solar PV panels and plants coexisting on farmland that allows crop generation and sun harvesting at the same time. It has been slow to pick up traction since its conception in the 1980s. However, the concept may finally be moving from the research lab to the farm.
In general, according to sentiment research from Cognition Smart Data, the idea is well received by Americans. They find it an “interesting concept,” “cool idea,” and think agrivoltaics could be an “ideal pairing.” Older working Americans, who make up the largest percentage of farmers, are discussing agrivoltaics the most. Particularly in the last three years, interest has picked up all over the country.
The average age of Americans discussing Agrivoltaics is roughly in line with the average age of small scale farmers in the US.
A new USDA grant plans to expand where we can combine solar farms with the relatively new concept of agrivoltaics. It is researching the proper heights for solar array installation and tests theories about yields, decreased resource expenditures, and expanded growing seasons.
Agrivoltaic systems help conserve natural resources. They have been shown to be especially beneficial in dry areas, where plants grown under panels require less water, and fruit production is increased. With warmer temperatures likely to become status quo due to climate change, agrivoltaics could be key to protecting small-scale outdoor farms.
Americans think agrivoltaics may be the solution to both the problem of solar panel monoculture and the drought problems in arid/hot areas.
Other potential perks for integrating solar panels into farm operations include:
- Built-in shade for livestock.
- Biodiversity for pollinators (think honey!).
- Reduced water requirements.
- Lower electric bills.
The interest in agrivoltaics doesn’t end at the doors of the lab. A recent survey found more than 80% of respondents in Texas and Michigan were more likely to support PV installations if they combined sustainable energy production and agriculture. Primarily, this support came from the belief such installations were likely to provide income opportunities to farmers (89%) and local economies (88%).
Moving to agrivoltaics could be extremely lucrative for farmers. In the lower 48, about 60% of land is used for agricultural purposes, and land used for solar farms is rented from $300-$800 an acre. Across the United States, energy coproduction is common. In 2014, 10% of farms in nine states received money from energy leases, some farmers earning as much as $150,000 annually.
For farmers, the money from an agrivoltaics project could be livelihood saving, especially with solar power becoming more cost-effective and more accessible. It might seem a little far-fetched today, but farmers of 2030 might be our tomato and salad green source and a critical piece of independent electrical grids.