Solar isn’t just being used on the roof of your home. You may have heard of solar farms before, which are large scale solar installations where photovoltaic (PV) panels (solar panels) are used to harvest the sun’s power in mass quantity. (1) But what about solar plus farming?
A growing number of farmers are starting to convert portions of their land to solar panels, generating power instead of produce. Not only to power their own farms, but to sell it back to electric companies for a hefty price, that is sometimes 10 times the profit of crops. This growing trend is tied to government incentives that make it even easier for people to choose clean energy. The 2017 census from the USDA shows that solar panels on farms have almost tripled from 2012. (2)
This is great news for farmers, right?
Solar Energy or Crops?
Some critics are worried about this shift, including Robert Rhykard of Illinois State University, Dept of Agriculture who says we should be strategic about replacing farmland with solar, saying that if we’re replacing productive farmland with solar energy generating panels, that “it may come back to haunt us.” (3)
The concern is that as the profit of commodities drops, farmers could start turning our most valuable crop farmland into solar farmland.
This presents an interesting dilemma of what is more important: crops or advancing the world with renewable energy?
The answer is both. Which is why recent studies have focused on solving this dilemma. And what they found was that when you pair solar panels with farming everyone wins.
The Solution is Solar Sharing
A study published in Nature Sustainability, the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Lead Energy-Water-Land Analyst Jordan Macknick and co-authors from the universities of Arizona and Maryland investigated the potential benefits of co-located agriculture and solar photovoltaic (PV) infrastructure (dubbed “agrivoltaics”) on food production, irrigation water requirements, and energy production. (4)
What they found was that in addition to providing clean energy, solar panels help crops to thrive in arid areas. In a process of solar sharing called agrivoltaics agriculture and solar photovoltaic panels are co-located for the benefit of both.
What this means: Agrivoltaics leads to better production all around.
This article from NREL does a great job of breaking down the findings of this study (5):
- Total chiltepin fruit production was three times greater in the agrivoltaic system compared to the control
- Water-use efficiency for the jalapeño was 157% greater in the agrivoltaic system
- For the cherry tomato, water-use efficiency was 65% greater and total fruit production doubled in the agrivoltaic system
- When irrigating every two days, soil moisture remained approximately 15% greater in the agrivoltaic system
- When irrigating daily, soil moisture in the agrivoltaic system remained 5% greater before the next watering
Improved renewable energy production
- Traditional ground-mounted PV panels were substantially warmer during the day than those with the plant-based understory
- The agrivoltaic PV panels were cooler during daytime hours compared to the traditional panel array by approximately 9°C, allowing for better performance.
But what about the rest of the farm?
Crops are one thing, but what about the animals? Another article discovered that solar panels provide needed shade in fields where sheep are raised. (6)
At a local community egg cooperative in Upstate NY named Geneva Peeps, the chicken they raise are called “solar chickens”. This is because the birds live with solar power all around them. Their hen house is built under photovoltaic panels, and even outside, they’ll spend time underneath them, protected from sun, rain, and hawks. (7)
Agrivoltaics = A Win for Everyone
So there you have it, solar panels are not only a great investment for your home, they’re also a great investment for farmers, and their tomatoes, sheep and chicken!