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Solar power and agriculture: The practices and synergies of agrivoltaics

Spring is in full swing, and with it growing conversations about the field of agrivoltaics.

Increased demand for solar power has spurred an interest in studying and defining the synergy between combining solar production and agricultural production, like planting crops or grazing animals, on the same land.

The general consensus is that not only does this integration save space, but it offers a number of mutually beneficial results for both the energy and the agriculture spheres as well as the surrounding communities and ecosystem.

Combining solar PV and agriculture is a promising win-win across a variety of sectors. While still relatively new and inarguably complex, agrivoltaics is being actively researched in an effort to fully understand how integrating the production of agriculture and solar energy can be maximized to favor all players.

Here’s a deeper look at the different practices and synergies of agrivoltaics, and what it means for the future of solar energy, the agricultural industry, and communities at large.

WHAT IS AGRIVOLTAICS?

A term accredited to French scientist Christophe Dupraz, agrivoltaics or agrophotovoltaics, is defined as the practice of co-developing the same area of land for both solar power and agriculture.

This coexistence of solar photovoltaic power and agriculture present a number of positive outcomes, improving certain crop production, increasing water retention in the soil beneath a solar array, and reducing the maintenance of a solar system, among other benefits. Best of all, it has the potential to increase revenues for all parties involved.

Though some crops are not suitable for this technique, and the impacts vary by plant type, what’s more is that researchers found agrivoltaic systems have promising implications for food production, efficient water use and water savings, and renewable energy production.

Scientists from Oregon State University found that by co-developing just 1% of cropland with solar — a method that can potentially increase harvests in some environments — could more than satisfy the energy demand of the whole world.

LAND USE CONFLICTS AND THE FOOD VERSUS FUEL DILEMMA

An often-cited disadvantage and important factor in the field of agrivoltaics is the replacement of food-producing farmland with solar arrays. Solar tends to be installed on the outskirts of cities, in close proximity to where it is needed and traditionally where food production already occurs. Croplands cover land that has the greatest solar power potential, based on several factors, such as the amount of incoming sunlight, air temperature, and humidity.

A solar array needs space. But unlike extractive energy, which must continually mine or drill new areas to sustain production, renewable energy like solar can be sustained indefinitely on the same parcel of land. Even though solar energy only comprises a fraction of the U.S. energy portfolio, its deployment has already led to land-use conflicts between proponents of solar and farmers.

It’s important to note, however, that solar will have less sprawl every year due to improvements in technology and efficiency. Solar arrays can also be decommissioned and rebuilt on the same parcel of land once a project’s life span is over, unlike fossil fuels that drain the land of its resources then move one to another location to do the same. Sprawl can be contained with solar, and with an unlimited energy source like the sun, the same land area can continue to be productive as long as the sun is shining. To drive this point further, the development of solar can be done in a sustainable, environmentally responsible way to reduce the impact on the surrounding ecosystem, and even provide sanctuary for wildlife and sensitive species.

Source: RPCS