Agrivoltaics represents an encouraging step forward in our push to make our food, energy, and water systems more sustainable. Advocates for the dual-use agricultural model point out that combining solar panels with certain crops on a single plot can increase the output and conserve water, at least in some circumstances. However, agrivoltaics must surmount several challenging hurdles on their way to widespread use. This roundup points out some of the current disadvantages of agrivoltaic systems.
The Upfront Cost of Elevated Solar Panels Is Huge
A 2016 study calculated the potential costs of widespread agrivoltaics implementation in Germany. It predicted a financial loss of 80 thousand Euros per hectare per year under free market conditions. Most of these losses would be due to the massive upfront costs of installing solar panels in a configuration appropriate to agrivoltaics. Furthermore, the study suggested that the two most likely ways to encourage farmers to adopt agrivoltaics would be large government subsidies for investors and higher utility prices.
Ongoing Costs May Require Extensive Government Intervention
The above research also enumerated ongoing costs in addition to installing solar panels. For example, the maintenance of electrical infrastructure would be a new consideration for farmers. Furthermore, the likelihood of farm machinery damaging solar arrays would influence insurance premiums.
Finally, at least in Germany, the current conventional farming loans would make it difficult for farmers to finance agrivoltaic installations, necessitating high-interest loans. Of course, regulations could change, but similar barriers exist in other countries, and time will tell whether the financial climate becomes more accommodating.
Complex Operation Requires Higher Labor Expenses
Agrivoltaics requires technical expertise outside the competence of most farmers. It may be difficult for them to repair anything that breaks, forcing them to retain the services of professionals. This could raise the skilled labor costs to prohibitive levels for many people. Even for less high-tech dual-use models, like using sheep with traditional solar arrays, a lack of available shepherds and high minimum wage laws make it almost impossible to turn a profit in a free market.
We Cannot Avoid Agricultural Land Loss Completely
Land loss is the most significant impediment to solar power, since it competes with agricultural land and pits the energy and food sectors against each other. However, studies have shown that cropland lends greater efficiency to solar panels. Nevertheless, regardless of the configuration, there will always be some agricultural land loss in an agrivoltaic setup. The amount of loss depends on the panel apparatus and is crop-specific. Still, the number of circumstances where agrivoltaics can meet the agricultural output of a traditional farm seems limited.
Agrivoltaics Outperforms Traditional Systems in Very Limited Circumstances
The ideal circumstances for agrivoltaics seem limited. Certain plants, like lettuce, spinach, and tomatoes, may thrive in the shade. However, as one study points out, we have imperfect knowledge of the tolerance of most staple crops to shade. The staple crops for which we do have data are not promising candidates. For example, corn and wheat are massive crops in the US, and shade stunts their growth very quickly. Lettuce and other reliable agrivoltaic crops cannot feed a large population.
- Tradeoffs – Products and services usually follow incentives. Organic foods may be more expensive now, but incentivizing producers will increase the supply, lowering prices later. It's the same with agrivoltaics and other green initiatives.
- Solar's Long Game – Putting up solar panels is expensive, whether in a field or on a house. However, the long-term costs seem to be worth it, and many cities and states offer tax incentives to people who go all in on green energy.
- Get Smart – Even without solar panels, simple smart home tech can help manage your energy use to lower costs and your carbon footprint.