The newest crop found on the farm? Solar panels.

The newest crop found on the farm? Solar panels. thumbnail
Meg Caley was seen at Jack’s Solar Garden demonstrating a bed of kale plants to visitors on a recent sunny morning. Caley, the executive director of Sprout City Farms has more than a decade experience in farming in urban areas in Denver. She is currently located about an hour north of the city and works with researchers on an experimental agricultural technique called agrivoltaics. Agrivoltaics is very low-tech. Instead of being placed 18 to 36 inches off the ground, as in traditional solar farms, the solar panels are raised significantly higher to accommodate grazing animals and to allow more sunlight to reach plants growing beneath them.

This approach could prove to be a boon both for energy generation and crop production. The plants will be kept cooler in direct sunlight, which allows them to retain more water and requires less watering. The solar panels are also more efficient if plants are placed underneath them. This reduces heat reflected from the ground and keeps them cooler. Cooler temperatures are also a benefit to farmers tending the crops and grazing animals.

three cows standing next to an array of solar panels
Agrivoltaics can help reduce heat stress in dairy cows

JOE DELNERO/NREL

Wide-scale adoption of the practice could help reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the United States by 330,000 tons a year and add more than 100,000 rural jobs without affecting crop yield very much. A 2019 study in the journal Scientific Reports predicted that the world’s energy needs could be met by solar panels if less than 1% of cropland were converted to agrivoltaic systems.

Combining agriculture and energy generation has multiple advantages, according to Joshua Pearce, a solar energy expert from Western University in London, Ontario. He says that solar energy and increased land-use efficiency are worth money and increase farmer’s revenue per acre. “The local community also benefits by protecting access to fresh foods and renewable energy

But researchers are still trying to figure out the best way to implement agrivoltaics systems. One variable is height. Jack’s Solar Garden has panels that are raised six to eight feet above the ground. The question remains as to which plants will thrive in the shade provided by solar panels.

Until these questions are resolved, agrivoltaics will remain an experiment. According to Allison Jackson, education director at the Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Center (which conducts tours at Jack’s Solar Garden), “Farmers aren’t known for being risk takers.”

It’s also costly. Agrivoltaics can save farmers money on electricity and irrigation, and provide additional cash if they sell electricity back to the grid. However, it is expensive upfront. Despite these challenges, agrivoltaics are being installed all over the world. According to the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE, electricity production capacity from agrivoltaics projects grew from about five megawatts in 2012 to more than 14 gigawatts last year, amid the rise of national funding programs in Japan, China, Korea, France, and the United States.

” “But we already know the fundamentals are viable,” says Peter Perrault of Enel North America, head for circular economy. “But we already know the fundamentals are viable.”

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