A 21st Century Agricultural Revolution

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It hasn’t quite sunk in yet, but an agricultural revolution is beginning to take shape around the globe in the form of new agrivoltaic technology that combines solar panels with livestock grazing, food crops, and pollinator habitats. Once it reaches full flower the agrivoltaic movement will be just as far-reaching and consequential as other new farming practices of the modern age — and hopefully more sustainable, too.

The Agrivoltaic Revolution Scales Up: Of Course, Bill Gates

CleanTechnica has been following the agrivoltaic movement since the early days, when the combination of solar panels and farm activity was a relatively small scale, early-on experimental endeavor. Now it is scaling up at an explosive pace, as leading solar developers realize they can deploy it to overcome the opposition to rural solar development.

That opposition has surged in recent months, even though modern farming is already an energy intensive blend of heavy machinery, toxic chemicals, plastic baling, and sprawling infrastructure. Adding vast arrays of solar panels to the mix is not particularly out of character. Nevertheless, fossil energy stakeholders have been ginning up opposition to rural solar development by proclaiming that generating energy — as opposed to using it — is an inappropriate use of farmland.

That’s a difficult argument to make when farming actually is taking place inside a solar array.

A case in point is Shell, which is behind one of the biggest agrivoltaic projects in the US, the proposed $1 billion, 800-megawatt Oak Run Solar Project in Madison County, Ohio, through its subsidiary Savion, to be located on 6,050 acres of which the majority is owned by the Bill Gates firm Midwest Farms LLC.

The project ran into opposition locally, as is becoming common in Ohio and other states. However, state-level regulators had the ultimate authority to approve the proposal, which they exercised last Thursday.

Sheep, Crops, & Solar Panels

To be clear, not all 6,050 acres will be devoted to agrivoltaic operations. As reported by the Columbus Dispatch, the solar project will also include 40 miles of access roads along with battery storage facilities and other infrastructure. That still leaves plenty of room for food systems, though.

“In the first year of operation, Oak Run must graze at least 1,000 sheep and grow crops on 2,000 acres. Within eight years of operation, at least 70% of the farmable project area, or at least 4,000 acres, must include agrivoltaics,” notes the Dispatch.

Shell is not the only oil and gas company to jump on the agrivoltaic trend with both feet. It’s both a business opportunity and a chance to add a bit of green sheen to an otherwise dismal sustainability profile.

Another example is the UK firm bp. It acquired the US solar developer Lightsource in 2017 and began picking off some of the low-hanging solar fruit in several underdeveloped Southeast states. The company now puts agrivoltaic development front and center in its portfolio, and it is not shy about pressing the economic case for farmers.

As America’s family farmers and ranchers face increasing economic stress, opportunities to partner with solar farms are providing new income streams and in many cases, the ability to expand their operations,” Lightsource bp states.

Agrivoltaic Reconversions Are Coming, Too

Livestock ranchers can get lots of mileage out of agrivoltaic arrays that simply consist of conventional solar panels raised higher than typical ground-mounted racking systems, allowing animals to roam underneath. The partially shaded environment is also beneficial for the growth of grass and other grazing fodder. In turn, the vegetation returns the favor by providing a cool microclimate that improves solar conversion efficiency.

In addition, new agrivoltaic infrastructure that is purpose-built to co-exist with agriculture is also coming on the market, including bifacial solar panels that can double as fencing.

So, what does this mean for existing, non-agrivoltaic solar arrays? They don’t necessarily have to be left out in the cold, as indicated by a new research paper published in the journal Applied Energy.

Existing solar arrays could be replanted with crops, but the challenge is to select the planted areas for maximum growth. That’s something of a risk for farmers, who could lose a whole season if they miscalculate the amount of available sunlight.

To de-risk the enterprise, researchers from the University of Cordoba in Spain modeled the El Molino solar array in Córdoba, which features two-axis solar trackers and backtracking. They mapped out pentagon-shaped “streets” between the solar panels where crops can be grown. Within those areas, the researchers also determined the amount of available land suitable for different crops, depending on their height.

Crops are just one retrofit opportunity for existing solar arrays. Last year the open access journal Environmental Research Communications published a Department of Energy study titled, “Valuation of pollination services from habitat management: a case study of utility scale solar energy facilities in the United States,” in which the authors make the case for reconditioning existing solar arrays for pollinator habitats.

The study covered utility-scale arrays next to 42 million hectares of pollination-dependent crops, and estimated the value of creating new pollinator habitats in 217 arrays within the 48 contiguous US states. “Creating pollinator habitats at the 217 utility-scale solar facilities in these states could support adjacent 80,000 hectares of high pollinator dependent crops, which could potentially generate a pollination value of $120 to $264 million USD,” they concluded.

The Agrivoltaic Revolution Has Just Begun

Despite the successful implementation of some large-scale agrivoltaic arrays here in the US, the Department of Energy is concerned that activity will stall out unless there is a better understanding of the obstacles faced by dual-use projects. To that end, the agency is funding a new research program through the SI2, the Solar and Storage Industries Institute, which is the nonprofit educational arm of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

SI2 launched the new “Solar + Farms Survey” research program in February. “While there are over 150 agrivoltaic solar sites in operation across the country according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), many barriers to further development persist,” SI2 explained in a press statement.

“The resources developed as part of this project will provide farmers, developers, utilities, and policy makers with the resources necessary to assess agrivoltaic solutions,” they added.

Shawn Rumery, senior director of research at SEIA, also chipped in his two cents.

“Solar siting is one of the most difficult parts of deploying clean energy, and better collaboration with farmers will help us bridge the knowledge gap,” he said.

As for SEIA itself, the organization is already talking up solar energy as “America’s Newest Cash Crop.” SEIA points out that farmers save on their utility bills by deploying small-scale arrays to power buildings and equipment, and they make money by leasing their fields for utility scale solar arrays. With agrivoltaics, farmers stand to layer more bottom line benefits on top.

“Some high-value crops like broccoli, leafy greens, peppers, strawberries, and blueberries thrive in reduced light conditions. One study found that cherry tomato production doubled under solar panels and water efficiency was 65% greater,” SEIA noted in a blog post last November.

SEIA may be getting slightly ahead of itself. Agrivoltaic science is still a new field, rendered even more complex here in the US by a widely divergent range of ecosystems. Keep an eye on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which is working with the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture on a multidisciplinary research program aimed at assessing the application of agrivoltaic systems in three regions representing rainy conditions (Illinois), dry conditions (Colorado) and irrigation dependency (Arizona).

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Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.

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