A scene of corn fields, grain silos, and grazing cattle is visible as one travels along an open country road. an ordinary rural setting. But something stands out in the distance. Solar panels can be seen as a long row of charcoal gray rectangles facing the sun in between the rows of vegetation and other crops.
It doesn't sound like a good place for renewable energy to live to "plant" solar panels in the middle of farmland or pasture. However, agricultural power, a renewable energy source that utilizes agricultural land in conjunction with solar panels, is a potent energy innovation route that might aid in minimizing the effect of agriculture on climate change. The production of agricultural energy might open the door to a better future.
What is agricultural power generation?
Agricultural power generation combines the power of water, energy and agriculture - a mutually beneficial relationship between plants, water, soil and ....... solar panels.
"Agri-" means food production and "-voltaic" means electricity. agrivoltaics is often abbreviated to AV so you don't have to bother. It is also referred to as Agri-solar, Low Impact Solar or Agro-Photovoltaic (APV). Whichever term you prefer, it all refers to the same concept of turning active agricultural land into a dual purpose solar farm.
Ben Dritenbas, senior development project manager at DSD Renewables, a solar developer and asset owner in the renewable energy industry, says:-"Essentially, we're growing solar."
Agri-generation didn't happen because some tech geeks thought it would be fun to put solar panels on a field with a flock of sheep. Agriculture and food production are huge contributors to climate change. About 85 percent of global water use is for agriculture, most notably irrigation. Food production is expected to double in the next 30 years in order to meet population demand.
solar power as a remedy
In 2050, the population is projected to increase to 9.8 billion from its current 8 billion. The issue is that the way we produce, process, and package food accounts for more than one-third of greenhouse gas emissions.
Solar energy is becoming more popular among scientists, researchers, and solar developers who are looking for ways to lessen human impact on climate change. The solar industry has grown at a teenage proportional rate, averaging 33 percent annually over the last ten years. 18 million homes in America could be powered by solar energy today.
But it's not an easy solution. A common concern with solar panels as an important renewable energy source is the amount of land they require.
Compared to fossil fuel power plants, solar power units require 10 times more land area than the former. The National Renewable Energy Agency (NREL) estimates that by 2030, 2 million acres of land will be devoted to solar installations.
But solar panels can reduce the footprint by sharing space with plants and animals on agricultural land - and that's just the beginning of the benefits of autopilot systems.
Agricultural power generation helps plants and animals
When plants grow, they have a sunlight saturation point. It's like eating a burger until you get too full and stop enjoying it. It's the same with plants. They can't absorb sunlight exponentially.
Unlimited sunlight doesn't mean crops grow faster or bigger; they sweat when they drink too much. When you sweat, you get thirsty; so do plants, which means they need more water.
But when farmers place solar panels in the right place to allow the right amount of sunlight, the plants get the sunlight they need without becoming too thirsty.
The lettuce crops used 20% less water and performed as well as or better than those grown in full sun without AV systems, according to research conducted at a research facility in Montpellier, France.
In other AV trials with solar panels in livestock, sheep and cattle could graze all day long while avoiding the hot sun and using less water because the panels provided shade. Even wildflowers were planted around the solar panels by a team of Cornell University researchers to see if that would help the declining bee population.
Farmers and solar energy systems both gain.
Benefits from this symbiotic relationship are mutually beneficial. The interaction between solar panels and plants directly benefits both parties. Some of the real agri-power magic (science) takes place here.
Solar panels don't work well in the Mojave Desert, one of the world's hottest and most deadly environments (although, to be honest, neither do we when it's over 120 degrees Fahrenheit or 48.8 degrees Celsius).
Solar panels installed in the desert absorb heat from the arid ground below, resulting in a heat island effect that raises the temperature of the area around them.
But by growing vegetables on the land underneath the solar panels, the plants evaporate (sweat) water from the leaves, cooling the surrounding air and thus making the solar panels cooler. Solar panels can perform better at lower temperatures, converting more sunlight into electricity! Pretty cool, right?
Research at Oregon State University (Oregon) found that growing crops underneath solar panels like these can generate up to 10% more electricity.
The farmer or livestock owner also benefits. Unfortunately, farmers have taken a financial hit in recent years. 2020 saw a 23 percent increase in the number of U.S. farms going bankrupt compared to the previous year. As older farmers leave their operations to their children or other family members, some are reluctant to take the risk of making long-term farming a career.
However, Ryan Lloyd, head of asset acquisition at DSD Renewables, says autos offer a new way forward. He says:Many farm families are starting to get a little excited because it's like, well, we can still farm and have renewable energy on our land." "They're starting to see the advantages of both worlds."
Farmers who use agrivoltaics have the opportunity to increase their yields and add a new source of income by renting out their land to solar energy companies.
The Northeastern United States is currently testing AV systems on sheep grazing land. "It might help lower costs for mowing and some of the operation and maintenance costs," Dritenbas claims. We try to coexist as amicably as possible and fit into the farmers' efforts.
Solar panel owners don't have to worry about mowing, sheep farmers can diversify their income, and sheep can eat as much as they want.
Throwing Shade on Solar and Other Challenges
People like the idea of renewable energy, but not close to their homes. Ask anyone if they support renewable energy and they'll probably say, "Of course!" Ask them if they are OK living next door to a solar installation and they're like to say, "Absolutely not."
Because solar power can't be loaded into a truck and driven to places like fossil fuels, sites must be close to resources, i.e., close to people. And some people are concerned that rectangular eyesores decrease property values.
"The industry calls them NIMBYs," which stands for Not In My Backyard, Dritenbas says. It's a term often used in development circles to describe residents who are less than thrilled about living next to a large solar installation, even if they understand it's for the greater good.
"We do screen the sights within landscape buffers the best that we can to meet county ordinances," Dritenbas explains. "We try and work with the landowners and adjacent landowners and try to come to a compromise, so it's a win-win for everybody."
Dritenbas points out that solar panels are discreet, unlike wind turbines, which are visible from a distance and consume massive plots of land. Solar panels stand between 8 and 12 feet (2.4 and 3.6 meters) tall and are typically surrounded by a fence or vegetative screen. "I think solar has done a pretty good job blending in with the surrounding landscape," Dritenbas says.
Researchers are still working out which plants and animal relationships experience the most benefit from AV systems. A study from the University of Arizona found that crops that grow well in partial shade — like sweet potatoes, lettuce, alfalfas, kale and chard — respond best. So far, shade-resistant crops like wheat and crops grown in greenhouses have not responded well.
Scientists also are asking questions about the long-term impacts of AV on land and soil quality, what types of agreements can be designed between solar developers, cities and landowners, and how livestock and animals will interact with the technology.
"Goats climb and chew everything, so they would eat the actual wires and infrastructure," says Dritenbas. "We wouldn't promote goats."
A New Reason to Coexist
Whether it's lettuce, sheep, bees or native wildflowers, it's clear that the symbiotic nature of agrivoltaics can create more energy with lower carbon emissions, decrease our water demand and increase our food production. While research is still in the early phases, Dritenbas and Lloyd know that agrivoltaic projects like theirs are pushing solar innovation forward.
"Someone's got to progress forward and see if it'll work," Dritenbas says. "We're happy to be one of those industry leaders to take that risk and try to make it happen."