An upswell of opposition to large-scale solar power plants on farms took shape in the U.S. last spring, partly fueled by conspiracy theories about climate change. Nevertheless, farmland is attractive to solar developers. Now they have a new support system on their side, in the form of agrivoltaics.
Agrivoltaics is an emerging field that allies solar energy and agricultural stakeholders. Here are five signs that it is a force to be reckoned with.
Solar developers are attracted to farmland because it is already developed, commercialized, leveled, treeless, and open to the sun. All of these factors can help minimize the cost of site preparation. Access to roads and transmission infrastructure is another plus. On the farmer’s side, leasing land to a solar developer provides the security of guaranteed revenue for the lifespan of the project, typically 25 years or so.
Critics have argued that solar power plants are an inappropriate use of farmland. However, that argument no longer carries the same force as in years past.
An agrivoltaic array deploys solar panels that are raised higher off the ground than usual, enabling livestock grazing and other types of farming to take place underneath.
The extra-high racking adds cost to the project, but the agrivoltaic factor can help overcome local opposition to solar projects.
In Colorado’s Delta County last March, for example, the county commissioner board rejected a proposal for an 80-megawatt solar array from the developer Guzman Energy. The board cited loss of agricultural land and opposition from neighboring property owners among the reasons.
Guzman came back with an offer to improve irrigation, establish an apiary, and graze more than 1,000 sheep on the site. The new proposal won approval last August.
As noted by Colorado Sun reporter Mark Jaffe, local supporters of the Guzman proposal were in the majority by August, but critics continued to raise objections. Among other points, area residents “questioned whether it would be too hot for the sheep among the solar panels in summer,” Jaffe reported.
The question of harm to livestock stands the actual facts on their heads. Combined with the surrounding vegetation, shade from the solar panels creates a cooling microclimate, not a hot one.
In addition to providing livestock with access to shade and relief from heat, the reduced temperature also enhances the efficiency of the solar array, which benefits the solar developer.
Employing livestock to trim vegetation around a solar array can also reduce maintenance costs for the developer, compared to mowing machines.
In addition to grazing and pollinator habitats, interest in other areas has been spurred by a growing body of evidence about the beneficial impact of agrivoltaic microclimates on fruit and vegetable crops.
“Agrivoltaics has been carried out for berries, grapes, and orchard crops like apples, and is well suited for shade-tolerant crops such as cauliflower or cabbage,” the Department of Energy noted in an August 2022 agrivoltaics market research study.
“Researchers from the University of Arizona determined that growing crops in the shade from solar panels can yield two or three times more fruit and vegetables than conventional agriculture setups,” the Energy Department also observed.
“For example, within the study cherry tomato production doubled in the agrivoltaics system and water-use efficiency for the crop was 65 percent greater than normal growing conditions,” they added.
Other benefits include protecting crops from hail, heavy rain and other extreme weather events. Agrivoltaic arrays could also provide farm workers with a cooler environment during hot weather.
Crop farmers and other stakeholders are also beginning to deploy agrivoltaics as an educational attraction, as illustrated by Jack’s Solar Farm in Boulder County, Colorado.
The solar supply chain is another factor stimulating the agrivoltaics field.
Earlier agrivoltaic arrays employed off-the-shelf solar panels and mounting racks. Now solar manufacturers are beginning to tailor their product lines for agrivoltaic projects, often with the assistance of remote, artificial intelligence systems that adjust solar panels in real time for maximum effect.
The Energy Department also takes note of manufacturers that offer solar products to replace the plain glass or plastic sheeting typically used in greenhouses and other crop shelters.
One company cited by the Energy Department is the French startup Sun’Agri, which describes its AI-assisted system as “dynamic agrivoltaics.”
“It involves constructing a system of solar louvres on top of the crops, which represents a real agronomic breakthrough that protects yields by combating water, heat and solar radiation stress,” the company explains.
The Energy Department describes a Sun’Agri test at a vineyard in France, in which water demand was reduced by 12-34 percent for grape vines sheltered by the solar panels.
The aromatic profile of the sheltered grapes also improved compared to a control group, the Energy Department added.
Precision farming is another area that has attracted more allies to agrivoltaics. A paper submitted to the IOP Conference Series earlier this year outlines a high tech “agricultural complex” that illustrates how agrivoltaics and precision farming can be combined in a remote-controlled system.
Large, utility-scale arrays with thousands of solar panels are just one aspect of the solarization of farmland. Smaller arrays are also in play, and they can encounter less resistance while helping to build awareness of the benefits of solar power.
New allies in that area include the U.K. startup H2arvester, which has developed a mobile “solar car” comprised of only 168 photovoltaic (PV) panels.
The device is aimed at producing green hydrogen from electrolysis systems, powered by electricity from the solar panels. The device can wheel around a field one part at a time, to collect solar energy without taking land out of production. Farmers can sell the hydrogen or use it on site for fuel.
At a smaller end of the scale, the Canadian company Worksport is collaborating with Hyundai and other partners to integrate solar panels with pickup truck tonneau covers, the flat coverings that fit over truck beds to protect against loss, theft and weather. The solarized tonneau covers are combined with an energy storage system.
Stepping down in size another notch, the U.S. startup Aigen is developing a fleet of PV-powered robots. Designed to pull weeds, the small, boxlike devices scurry around a field with solar panels on their backs.
As reported by Reuters last spring, opposition to solar arrays on farmland is likely to continue, and opponents will probably continue to register some successes.
However, more solar development on farmland is all but inevitable. In addition to advocacy by solar developers and individual farmers, solar farming advocates have White House policy on their side. That includes an assist from the Department of Agriculture’s Climate-Smart Commodities program along with support from the Energy Department.
Big Ag is also poised to become a powerful ally. Leading stakeholders in the global food supply sector have begun to organize support for regenerative agriculture practices that support carbon sequestration in soil, and that overlaps with the soil conservation and biodiversity benefits of agrivoltaics.
Fossil energy only began to transform the agricultural landscape of the U.S. about 100 years ago. Now its grip is loosening, and a new transformation is taking shape.
Image credit: Tobi Kellner via Wiki Commons
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.