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Waste of Space? The Agrivoltaic Opportunities Beneath a Solar Panel

A novel solution that combines both the jobs of solar panels and croplands has emerged. Agrivoltaic (a fusion of “agriculture” and “voltaic”) is an area of innovation that co-develops a common area of land for both agriculture and solar photovoltaic power.

Solar is a huge opportunity for low-carbon power, but it takes a great deal of land to deliver it. Estimates suggest it takes around 2.5 acres of land-based solar panels to generate 1MW of electricity. Agriculture is another sector facing similar land use problems. At present some 11 percent (1.5 billion ha) of the globe’s land surface is used in crop production.

why waste that area of opportunity?

But there’s an exciting opportunity to amplify that sustainable potential, by looking beneath the solar panel itself. Solar panels operate on frames that lift them above the land, creating a gap beneath. So why waste that area of opportunity?

Malaysia’s Innovation Beneath the Solar Panel

AgrivoltaicUniversiti Putra Malaysia recently signed a memorandum of understanding with PEKAT solar to explore the potential beneath solar panels. This exciting project is working on delivering the value of a hybrid agrivoltaic system (HAVS), using the area beneath a solar panel to cluster growing pots. These pots benefit from the shade beneath solar panels which can protect crops that are sensitive to heavy downpour or direct sunlight. The solar PV cells also benefit, as crops help reduce the ambient temperature beneath, increasing the efficiency of power generation.

Harvested crops such as tea can also be placed on drying racks beneath the cell using a multi-tiered system, providing a drying space to prepare the herbs for manufacturing. It’s a cycle of renewable energy and renewable agriculture, and the opportunity beneath solar cells is one that’s increasingly being explored around the world.

Rooting for growth in Arizona

In Arizona, USA, a local university is exploring the value of soil beneath solar panels to grow regional vegetables and maximise the potential sustainable value of solar installations. This project focused on plants such as peppers, jalapenos, and cherry tomato plants.

Their research showed, much like the Universiti Putrajaya project, that plants benefited from the microclimate conditions beneath the solar panel. Extensive monitoring of soil quality and plant growth revealed that the majority of the crop grew better in the shade beneath the solar panels, with some crops growing twice or three-times more productively beneath the panel.

Crucially also for the arid conditions of Arizona, the agrivoltaic system significantly reduced water loss. Soil moisture remained 15% higher in this pilot system, showing how agrivoltaic could also help mitigate water challenges inherent in agriculture. Once again, the study showed that planting beneath panels reduced the ambient temperature of the solar PV cells themselves, boosting energy production.

No Sour Grapes in France

The potential for solar panels to create energy while shading crops from the sun is increasingly important in an era where climate change continues to drive global warming. One area of agriculture particularly vulnerable to these changes is France’s renowned wine growing regions.

Creating world-class wine requires careful cultivating and management of grapevines throughout the year. As temperatures rise due to global warming, delivering on that consistent quality and protecting from crop losses has been increasingly difficult. Now vineyards of Southern France are looking to innovative agriculture solar PV solutions as a smart win-win victory in the battle against climate change.

This pilot installation utilises solar panels raised four meters from the ground above grapevines, coordinated by a smart Artificial Intelligence (AI) system that adjusts movement and shade in real-time. The trial project showed demonstrable improvements in grape quality, at the same time reducing water demand by up to one-third. It seems likely they raised a glass to those results.

Grazing in the shade

It’s not just crop agriculture set to benefit from the shade beneath solar panels. Countries around the world are also exploring the value of animal grazing in the shaded land beneath panels. Sheep producing countries such as the UK and Australia have been trialling these projects over recent years.

In Australia, solar panels provided an important opportunity to boost water collection at times of drought, channelling the minimal rainfall to improve growing conditions below. That meant a reduced challenge in providing grazing areas for sheep during dryer seasons. Unlike plants however, sheep tend to move around, which can create challenges in tangles with technical equipment. Trials continue to explore how adapting the design of solar panels can optimise the benefits for sheep and solar panels alike.

Cool rooftop innovation

Combining agrivoltaic systems with the expanding rooftop solar estate provides another area of opportunity for users around the world.

rooftop installations unlock a range of benefits, particularly in tropical regions

Agrivoltaic rooftop installations unlock a range of benefits for users, particularly in tropical regions such as Southeast Asia. It helps make urban infrastructure more sustainable – particularly important for a region that will see rapid urbanisation in coming years.

The combined solar panel shading and crop agriculture helps reduce rooftop temperatures, naturally cooling buildings and reducing the need for energy-intensive air conditioning. That heat shielding is extremely valuable as temperatures rise in hotter months, and integrated rainwater harvesting can also reduce water demand. A rooftop agrivoltaic could also provide produce for residents, creating a real crop-to-fork cycle that reduces the carbon footprint of your food by eliminating transport emissions.

Agrivoltaic installations highlight how energy and digital innovation continue to offer positive opportunities in our battle for a more sustainable world. That supports a commitment to maximise use of resources of all kinds, leveraging inspiring innovation to reduce waste, increase efficiency, and provide a greener future for us all.

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