The rapid development of the world’s renewable energy capacity will require the use of a great deal more land, which is not always easy to come by. While many governments worldwide are backing huge solar projects, getting landowners and local communities to support the development of these sites can prove difficult. In recent years, there has been a significant rise in the quantity of dual-purpose land use, as farmers welcome the use of energy-producing equipment alongside animal grazing or crop production. A growing number of farms are now home to solar panels, which help supply the land needed for energy production while providing farmers with an extra source of income.
Agrovoltaic energy is where land is used for both the production of solar energy and agricultural products. While the term has been used for several decades, it has only become popular with the expansion of the solar energy industry. These types of projects can be used to produce electricity to utilise on the farm or by solar companies for broader energy production to supply the grid. Solar panels can be installed on farms with livestock and/or crops allowing for energy production alongside traditional agricultural activities.
Installing solar panels on agricultural land requires planning to ensure that the crops continue to grow and that the livestock can access the land as needed. Typically, solar panels are attached to fixed support systems that elevate them around five metres off the ground. This allows farmers to continue using machinery to access the crops. Alternatively, solar panels can be placed on top of greenhouse or barn roofs. Modern solar equipment using complex software systems can also ensure that crops do not miss out on the sunlight they need to grow, by rotating the solar panels based on the season and position of the sun to vary which crops get shade. Energy companies are also working towards the development of semi-transparent panels that would allow for sunlight to reach the crops, thereby supporting photosynthesis.
Using land for the dual purpose of energy and agricultural production can promote more sustainable practices, ensuring that land isn’t wasted. It prevents the clearing of arable land for the sole use of energy production. Further, some studies suggest that the electricity generated by solar panels can increase the economic value of farms by over 30 percent, as it improves both land-use efficiency and yields. This is more common in hotter regions of the world where shade can help protect crops. However, as solar panels create more shade it can also hinder growth in cooler regions.
In the U.S., a Solar Futures Study estimates that solar energy could provide 1 terawatt of electricity-generating capacity to the grid by 2035. But achieving this would require solar farms to be developed over 5.7 million acres of land in the U.S., or around 0.3 percent of the country’s land. While this seems like a relatively small proportion, the most appropriate land for solar operations is flat with lots of sun, which is also the most sought-after for agricultural purposes. Agricultural land currently comprises around 44 precent of the total U.S. land area, and rather than battling over land use, the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy is encouraging farmers to use their land for the dual purpose of crop or livestock and energy production. This will reduce competition over land in the coming decades and could result in ecological benefits.
Jordan Macknick, the Lead Energy-Water-Land Analyst for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, explained “Even though the United States is a very large country with a lot of available land, every single square inch of land is either owned, protected or cherished by someone or many people. And many people do not want to see that land change or transform into something different from what it has been.” Macknick added, “agrivoltaics really offers us that opportunity to continue farming, continue doing these agricultural activities while also producing clean electricity.”
The development of agrovoltaic is still in the nascent stage, meaning that many farmers are understandably wary about introducing solar panels onto their farmland at the risk of losing their livelihoods. But many view this as a modern, innovative approach to farming. As a greater number of farms become more automated, using artificial intelligence and other smart technologies to boost performance, and energy production could be the next step to enhancing land use and boosting farmer incomes.
Recently, some major energy companies have demonstrated their interest in developing their agrocoltaic capacity through new projects. Lightsource BP, which is 50 percent owned by British oil major BP, currently leases agricultural land for its solar panels at the Elm Branch Solar Farm near Dallas, Texas. Sheep graze around the equipment, helping to manage the vegetation, and Lightsource BP offers the landowner a stable monthly income. Lightsource operates a combined 615 megawatts (MW) of sheep grazing and solar power projects, around 12 percent of the current agrivoltaic portfolio in the U.S., with plans to develop a further 1,058MW in 2024. Meanwhile, Shell has a 44 percent stake in solar developer Silicon Ranch, which operates 1,300MW of agrivoltaic projects, with 900MW more expected within the next two years.
The expansion of agrivoltaic projects is expected to promote the sustainable use of land and decrease competition over arable land. As more farmers become open to the idea of allowing solar panels to be installed on their farmland, it is expected to promote the practice in various parts of the world, which would not only help produce the energy required to support a green transition but would also offer farmers a much-needed boost in income.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com
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