The amount of solar energy that hits the Earth’s surface in just one hour is more than enough to power our entire civilization for a year. Seeing as there are almost 10,000 hours in a year, the Sun’s rays are essentially an unlimited energy source. One challenge is that a typical solar panel can only convert about 20% of solar energy into electricity. Thus, to properly harness the energy of the Sun, you need a lot of solar panels scattered and pointed in optimal ways.
A bigger challenge is the space solar power requires. You can produce a good deal of electricity from solar panels mounted on roofs of residential or commercial structures. However, to really get the best of solar power, you need open space.In some areas, open space is abundant. In others, it’s not. That’s largely because we need lots of space to produce something else that’s pretty important: food. Despite centuries of optimizing food production, it still swallows about half of Earth’s habitable land. But all of that optimization can’t get around the eight billion mouths we must feed, and many of those mouths enjoy resource-intensive food like beef. Unless either one of those facts changes anytime soon, the amount of land we use for food production won’t change materially. So it would seem that our need to feed ourselves conflicts with our need to power our civilization with abundant solar energy. Well, what if you could combine solar power and agriculture in a way that makes both solar power and food production more effective while providing other massive benefits beyond the realms of energy and food?
It turns out there’s a burgeoning type of land use that involves just that: agrivoltaics. In a nutshell, agrivoltaics (i.e., agriculture plus photovoltaics) is the combination of solar energy and agriculture. It typically involves co-locating solar panels and some sort of food production, whether it be crops, livestock, and/or pollinators.
As you’ll see below, agrivoltaics kills multiple birds with one stone. It allows for more solar energy, more sustainable food production, and the conservation of precious land and water resources. This neatly ties into the food-energy-water nexus, a concept propagated by the United Nations which reflects the links between food security, energy security, and water security as well as their links to human well-being, poverty reduction, and sustainable development.