The International Energy Agency recently said solar farms were among the cheapest sources of electricity and called it “the new king of electricity”.
However, there has always been one aspect of solar that, unlike costs, cannot really change, which is the need of land. Otherwise building windmills and creating solar farm alternatives have also proven to carry a shocking carbon footprint.
Solar farms need a lot of land and critics have used this as an argument against the future expansion of this form of renewable power generation. Proponents, however, have found ways to not just solve this problem but do it with benefits for another industry.
Agrivoltaics refers to the dual use of farmland for solar power generation and farming. A one-megawatt solar installation requires some 4 to 5 acres of land, depending on the panels used.
But you can’t just build a solar farm on any four or five acres of land anywhere. For optimal efficiency, these panels need optimal locations. It so happens that these locations usually are on arable land. And those experimenting with the combination of solar and farming are reporting pretty encouraging results.
Solar panels are just like people and the weather, they are happier when it’s cool and breezy, while solar panels prefer it to be dry, like in the desert of Tunisia where the world largest solar farm was constructed.
But the combination of solar and farming is also good for farming. Plants growing in the shade of solar panels need less water, meaning growing them becomes cheaper.
While the idea of growing plants in the shade of solar panels might sound sub-optimal for the plants, plants won’t use light beyond their light saturation point, which, for many crops is lower than the available sunlight.
Crops with the lowest light saturation points are already grown in shaded conditions (coffee, some small fruits, medicinal herbs, leafy greens).
The shade of the solar panels actually protects the plants growing underneath them during the hottest hours of the day. Early research into agri-voltaics suggests solar panels in warmer areas can even increase the yield of some crops.
Creating shared value through farmable solar sites not only preserves the land but also takes proactive site preparation measures, including planting beneficial vegetation, often friendly to bees and other pollinator insects, if no pesticides are used?
Since agricultural land could be good for solar farms, we may in the future see more and more agri-voltaics projects. This would drive efforts to optimize the plant component of the combination so benefits are maximized and any disadvantages minimized.
Oil Price.com / ABC Flash Point news 2020.