As billions of people worldwide brace against the effects of climate change, a series of destabilizing shocks continues to hit the global economy. In a few short years, the COVID outbreak and recent turmoil in Ukraine have negatively affected commodities markets, supply chains, and inflation, leading to skyrocketing food and energy costs. Amid these problems, food and energy insecurity is rapidly spreading over the planet.
But new technologies in the energy and agricultural sectors promise to alleviate some of the pressure. Although it may seem that reaching net zero in either industry is impossible, agrivoltaics offers compelling evidence that we stand to gain ground within the next few years. This article will explore this new technology, its development, and the challenges it faces in pursuing cleaner food and energy.
Agrivoltaics Combines Renewable Energy with Food Production
Agrivoltaic farming combines elevated solar photovoltaic (PV) projects with agricultural activities, using a given land area for both purposes. For example, farmers can use raised or suspended solar panels to shade or shelter crops and livestock, promoting a more open, free-range approach. Proponents believe combining renewables with agriculture can significantly cut global greenhouse gas emissions, conserve biodiversity, reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and boost agricultural output.
A Multi-Layered Approach May Conserve Resources and Boost Production
The defining feature of agrivoltaics is sharing sunshine between different energy conversion mechanisms - that is, between photovoltaics (solar panels) and photosynthesis (plants). Essentially, it is similar to the agroforestry and forest farming movements, where farmers integrate trees and other natural phenomena to assist crop growth and maintenance. Both techniques use strategic shade to create multiple layers of agricultural output on a single plot.
Shade from elevated solar panels protects crops from harsh weather conditions and helps preserve soil moisture. Practitioners are hopeful this will help avoid desertification and revegetate deserted terrain. Depending on the amount of shade, some studies show that soil can become over 300% more water efficient under solar panel shade. In a future of longer droughts, the strategy might help reduce the strain on an already overtaxed water supply.
Several Research Projects Are Underway in the US
Agrivoltaic projects are currently underway around the US. For example, a team at Oregon State University is experimenting with growing crops between standard utility-scale solar PV panels that are not raised for additional shade. In addition, researchers from the University of Maine are documenting the effects of solar panels on 11 acres of blueberry patches near Rockport, Maine. Nearby, farmers in Grafton, Massachusetts, are collaborating with scientists from the University of Massachusetts to determine which crops thrive most in the shadow of solar panels. Finally, Jack's Solar Garden in Longmont, Colorado, has become the country's biggest commercially operating agrivoltaics research site.
The Next Few Years Will Answer Many Questions About Feasibility
Despite the number of research projects underway, agrivoltaics is still new, and many questions remain. The concerns of environmentalists, policymakers, and consumers include the following:
What are the long-term effects of solar energy infrastructure on soil quality?
What crops are most suited for photovoltaic systems, and where should we grow them?
What impacts could livestock and wildlife have on solar energy equipment?
What subsidies are appropriate to encourage further research without adversely affecting agricultural or energy markets?
How should the government alter regulatory structures to encourage collaboration between farmers and energy companies?
Scale, Compatibility, and Cost Are the Main Barriers to Implementation
The path forward for agrivoltaics is littered with challenges. With many initiatives still in the experimental stage, the primary difficulty will be developing a way to manage agricultural operations and solar panel infrastructure side by side. Current, small-scale projects handle integration well, but utility-scale operations are much larger and more complex.
In addition, the compatibility of agrivoltaic techniques with conventional agriculture will be a big issue for most farmers. Agrivoltaics can only be effective if farmers are sufficiently motivated and able to raise crops without undue complications. In other words, they need to turn a profit, and the learning curve must be manageable. Unfortunately, most solar panel arrays are not farmer friendly. To overcome this obstacle, solar panel designers need to receive input from the farmers who will use their panels daily.
Finally, cost is an issue. Most agrivoltaic operations will rely on raised or suspended solar panels. Materials and installation will be much more expensive than regular solar panel fields. Therefore, it may be challenging to entice investors without substantial public incentives, which often have unforeseen economic consequences.
It's Early Days, but Agrivoltaics Is a Promising Opportunity to Boost Production and Reduce Emissions
Agrivoltaics is an exciting proposition to double up on land use. Proponents hope that the integration of solar power and agriculture will increase the productivity of both, reducing strain on in each sector as we push for a sustainable future. Early experiments are encouraging, but it will take time to determine whether the cost is too high, the environment is safe, and system management is possible. Nevertheless, agrivoltaics is catching on in the US and abroad, and it may grow to be a crucial tool to stave off climate change and feed a growing population.
Go Vertical – You can adopt the principle of layering in your own garden. Many people are practicing vertical gardening to save space, especially in apartments and smaller suburban plots. Consider trying to grow three or four herbs in the same area as you used to grow one.
Follow Nature – Even if there are no agrivoltaic facilities near you, go old school. Try to source food from farms that practice agroforestry, using trees and natural hedges to provide shade and support natural pesticides.
Use Solar – It's a significant upfront investment, but solar panels can pay off big in the long run – especially since many states and municipalities give tax breaks for converting to solar.