Agrivoltaics

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Introduction: Agrivoltaics

Though it goes without saying, there are few things more important to agriculture than sunlight. This is also why you sometimes see solar panel installations competing for space with traditional farms – it turns out that some of the best places to install solar panels are also often the best places to grow crops. The conditions that help crops thrive also maximize solar panel efficiency. Then, it comes down to a question of what people find more important: creating energy, or growing food.

However, agriculture and solar power don’t need to exist in opposition. It’s possible to marry both solar energy and agriculture, a combination that’s also known as agrivoltaics. Rather than having this be a fight for space, more and more researchers have been finding ways to marry the two, which has everyone very excited. In this blog, we’ll look at the benefits of agrivoltaics.

Benefits for Crops

Typically, the solar panels that are installed at farms are suspended above current crop growth, allowing for a more efficient use of space. This allows crops to grow while also letting the solar panels absorb largely uninterrupted sunlight.

However, there are benefits to agrivoltaics beyond simply saving space.

By installing solar panels above the ground, they tend to cool crops during the day while also keeping them warmer at night, creating a natural barrier from the extremes of nature. This benefit is also a two-way street. Because crops create more moisture in the air, this has the effect of cooling down the solar panels. And, since solar panels typically lose efficiency the hotter they are, it turns out that crops can help solar panels, too.

There are further benefits to the more humid conditions that these solar panel installations create, too. With more moisture in the air and more moisture in the soil, irrigation becomes more efficient, since there’s simply less need for outside water to be pumped in. Where solar panels are involved, efficiency goes up all around. 

On top of this, solar panels can also block the wind and limit soil erosion. In more ways than one, agrivoltaics can have a protective effect on crops. However, there are benefits to agrivoltaics that go beyond the growing of crops.

Benefits for Livestock

If you’re worried above livestock, though, solar panels can be elevated to a minimum of seven feet above the ground in order to allow livestock the ability to continue grazing. Unlike with growing crops, however, this does come with some risks. Livestock, especially larger animals such as cows, can damage the frames that the solar panels are installed on.

However, since these solar panel installations shade the ground below, the resulting drop in temperature can be beneficial for livestock. Studies have shown that livestock grazing beneath solar panels have lower internal temperatures, thereby increasing their health and happiness. Though there are risks involved with allowing livestock to graze near solar panels, there are clear benefits as well.

Other Practical Benefits

There are other practical benefits to agrivoltaics as well. Since the technology has gotten dramatically cheaper over the years, installing solar panels no longer comes with the steep up-front cost it once did. And, of course, solar panels very easily justify their purchase, from either reducing existing electric bills or from selling electricity back to utilities companies.

There are few risks that come with agrivoltaics, too. Solar panels are typically installed on aluminum and/or steel frames, which studies have shown don’t leech anything harmful into the soil. There are also no links between solar panels and increased pest problems.

This almost goes without saying, but solar panels, and green technology in general, is beneficial to the environment. Sustainable power sources are far less damaging to the environment than traditional fossil fuel sources, and we’ve already seen the effect that climate change has had on agriculture. Increasing our use of sustainable power sources can help slow climate change and ensure that the environment is healthy enough to sustain agricultural practices.

Cons

However, all is not sunny in the world of agrivoltaics. Though there are numerous benefits to installing solar panels above crops, they are also limiting in certain ways. For one you can’t drive large farm equipment through solar panel installations, due to space constraints and risk of damaging the solar panels. This means that solar panels require manual farming. This isn’t an issue if the crops being grown are already handled this way, but can be a difficult transition otherwise.

As mentioned above, too, allowing livestock to graze around these installations also comes with the risk of damaging solar panels. Similarly, wild animals can also cause damage, meaning that care has to be taken to keep them away. Most farms likely already have some protections in place, but it’s still a consideration to make.

Conclusion

Agrivoltaics, or the marriage of agriculture and solar energy technology, is an exciting development for the future. Though there are some cons, there are plenty of benefits as well, from the improvements to crop growth to the money-saving potential to the clear environmental angle. There’s little confusion as to why people are so interested in agrivoltaics.

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