Is This The Key To Cheaper Solar Energy?

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The International Energy Agency recently said Solar parks were among the cheapest sources of electricity. It called Solar “the new king of electricity”. But there has always been one aspect of solar energy that, unlike the cost, cannot really change: the land requirement. Solar parks need a lot of land and critics have used this as an argument against the future expansion of this form of renewable energy generation. Proponents, however, have found ways not only to solve this problem, but to do it with benefits to another industry.

Agrivoltaics refers to the dual use of arable land for the generation and agriculture of solar energy. A one-megawatt solar system requires around 4 to 5 acres of land, depending on the panels used. But you can’t just build a solar farm anywhere in four or five acres. These panels need optimal positions for optimal efficiency. So it happens that these locations are usually on farmland. And those experimenting with combining solar and agriculture report rather encouraging results.

For one, farmland is good for solar panels. ONE study For example, last year Oregon State University found that solar panels were much more efficient when installed on farmland: “Solar panels are just like people and the weather, they’re happier when it’s cool and airy and dry,” said he is one of the study’s authors, Associate Professor Chad Higgins.

But the combination of solar and agriculture is also good for agriculture. Plants grown in the shade of solar panels require less water, which means it will be cheaper to grow, Higgins told Oilogle. And while the idea of ​​growing plants in the shade of solar panels may not sound optimal for the plants, Higgins notes, “Plants don’t use light beyond their light saturation point, which for many crops is lower than the available sunlight. Plants with the lowest light saturation points are already grown in shady conditions (coffee, some small fruits, medicinal herbs, leafy vegetables, etc.). “

Related: Can Ecuador Save Its Ailing Oil Sector? And that’s not all. The shade from the solar panels actually protects the plants that grow beneath them during the hottest hours of the day, says Marcus Krembs, director of sustainability at Enel North America. He adds that early research on agrivoltaics suggests that solar panels in warmer areas can even increase the yield of some plants.

Some regular agricultural activities, such as harvesting or plowing, are also possible with simply higher mounted solar panels, explains Dan Orzech, general manager of the Oregon Clean Power Cooperative. However, taller panels would be more expensive, Orzech notes, but there is another alternative: Spread the panels thinner so you can put farm equipment where it is needed.

Solar panels can also have a positive impact on animal farms. Because they increase water retention in the soil, they can encourage more abundant vegetation for sheep and other farm animals to graze. This has the win-win nature of keeping the sheep fed while avoiding mechanical trimming of the grass, explains Orzech of the Oregon Clean Power Cooperative.

According to the Krembs from Enel Green Power, solar parks can also stimulate the population growth of bees and other pollinators.

“Creating shared value through solar farms not only preserves the land, but also takes proactive site preparation measures, including planting useful vegetation that is often suitable for bees and other pollinating insects, while also providing habitat for native species created that need less intensive care and mowing. ” He cited the results of Enel Green Power’s partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

“Sheep thrive on solar parks and it’s a natural combination,” says Dr. Gavin Harper of Birmingham University, author of “Solar Energy Projects for the Evil Genius” and “Domestic Solar Energy”. “They eat the grass and vegetation around the farms, keep it low and prevent overshadowing. Meanwhile, the panels offer the sheep shade and protection in hot and bad weather.”

At first glance, solar energy and agriculture are mutually exclusive. However, on closer inspection, they appear to be mutually beneficial in more ways than one. As the Krembs from Enel Green Power noted, even solar parks on non-agricultural land have a positive impact on this land. When built on farmland, the benefits of the combination only seem to increase.

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This is mainly thanks to the flexibility of solar panel technology. As OSU’s Higgins explains, you can raise the panels or tilt them to make room for tractors and harvesters in fields so they don’t get in the way of equipment. Interestingly, agrivoltaics can also drive innovations in machines.

“In the long term, I think there will be a co-development of next-generation farm equipment and PV shelving solutions,” Higgins told Oilprice. “Companies like Rippa and John Deere (among others) already have driverless prototypes for electric tractors. These low-profile systems hold great promise for use in agrivoltaic systems.”

This coevolution could also extend to plants. Since agricultural land is the best for solar parks, we may see more and more agrivoltaic projects going forward. This would encourage efforts to optimize the plant component of the combination so that the advantages are maximized and any disadvantages are minimized.

By Irina Slav for Oil Genealogie

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