Agri-PV a useful synergy between agriculture and solar energy
The idea of agricultural photovoltaics (Agri-PV) was introduced early in the 1980s. It was stated that energy collectors and agriculture could share the same land area and that this coexistence would in fact boost the benefits. It would also avoid the land-use conflict between the different kinds of solar harvesting. Forty years later and a growing concern are indeed land-use conflicts between food and energy production.
In recent decades the cost of solar development has decreased and with it the volume of solar energy generation has increased. The plummeting cost of turning sunlight into electricity is beating forecasts by decades, speeding the transition toward a clean energy system. Solar prices have sunk low enough to make photovoltaics the cheapest source of electricity in most of the world, undercutting fossil fuels in price without even including costs such as air pollution and climate change.
In late 2020, SolarPower Europe launched a report focusing on boosting the development of Agri-PV in rural areas of Europe. The development empowers farmers to be at the heart of the European Green Deal and the post-Covid green recovery. Agri-PV supports the transition to a sustainable food supply and ecosystem, as well as supporting the objectives of the Common Agricultural Policy, the Farm to Fork Strategy and The Clean Energy Package.
The process is still developing, and methods are being established to adapt solar sharing to the production processes of many different crops. Most commonly, solar panels are attached to taller arrays to allow farm production beneath, such as machinery access, crop growing and animal movement. Originally, panels were spaced to allow for optimum light access and specific wavelengths to reach the crops and the PV panels. Today, the methods for accomplishing this are more advanced, as panels can be made translucent or mechanically adjustable. This allows finer control of the amount and/or which wavelengths of light that are absorbed by the panel or allowed to reach the crops.
The development of Agri-PV can mitigate risks associated with extreme weather conditions. It can shade crops, protecting it from high temperatures and thus decreasing water stress during droughts.Agri-PV can also shield crops from extreme weather events, such as hail. With the aid of digital solutions, Agri-PV can adapt to the needs of the crops by optimising the level of shading or humidity needed with the generation of electricity.
Furthermore, by protecting agricultural output and providing a revenue complement to farmers, Agri-PV systems reduce the need for government intervention in case of crop failures due to climate change impacts. Between 2007 and 2016, land temperatures in Europe were about 1.6°C warmer than in pre-industrial times. The reported economic losses, between 1980 and 2016, from weather and extreme climate-related events are estimated to be over €436 billion.
It has been estimated that deploying Agri-PV on one percent of global cropland could help meet total global energy demand. Since 2014, around 2,800 Agri-PV systems have been deployed worldwide, mostly in Japan, South Korea, and China, where regulatory frameworks and support schemes have already been in place for a number of years. If Agri-PV were deployed on only one percent of Europe’s arable land, its technical capacity would be over 700 GW, generating more than 25 percent of the EU’s current electricity consumption. The development of Agri-PV in Europe is fragmented among EU member states, with growth concentrated in France1.
In France, research conducted on a vineyard showed that solar panels reduced water irrigation needs between 12 to 34 percent through shading. Additionally it showed an increase in the quality of the fruit. Grapes grown in this manner will generate an additional 13 percent of anthocyanins, the phenolic compounds that give red wine its distinctive colour, and 9 to 12 percent of additional acidity. Agri-PV can also create benefits for biodiversity. In the UK, renewable energy developer Ecotricity became one of the first “bee guardian” businesses in the country with its plans to create a “bee haven” at its solar farm in Lincolnshire. They planted a 20,000-panel solar farm with native wildflower seeds to encourage bees and insects to the site.
Unemployment in rural communities, specifically for young people, is an important challenge. Between 2015 and 2017, the average unemployment rate for young people in rural areas was 18 percent. Furthermore, the rural population is decreasing across the EU. Between 2013 and 2017, approximately 500,000 people left rural areas in favour of larger urban centres.
The solar industry stimulates the social and economic fabric of rural areas, generates new employment opportunities, and diversifies the economic structure of rural communities. Solar creates more jobs per megawatt of power generated than any other energy source. The development of Agri-PV projects supports jobs in the downstream activities of the PV sector, such as installation, engineering, or operation and maintenance of the Agri-PV installations.
Agriculture represents the majority of water consumption in the EU, accounting for approximately 40 percent of water resources in 2019. Globally, farming activities account for 70 percent of global water withdrawals, reaching as much as 95 percent in some developing countries2.Sustainable management of scarce water resources will be essential to maintaining agricultural practices. Agri-PV contributes to decreasing the water needs of farming by sheltering crops from heat and by reducing evaporation. Soil below the shade of PV panels retains moisture, providing ideal conditions for certain types of crops.
Water consumption can be further improved with digitalised Agri-PV solutions that can register solar irradiation and better regulate the microclimatic conditions beneath the panels. Additionally, Agri-PV can be used to power the pumping of underground water for irrigation, replacing diesel generators.
Alain Desvigne, CEO of Amarenco Group and Chair of SolarPower Europe’s Agri-PV workstream, said: “Agri-PV is not only a solution towards building more resilient economies and mitigating the global impact of climate change, it is one of the most versatile technologies as it integrates the production of low carbon and local energy together with the farming of local crops, the conservation of biodiversity, and the protection of agriculture against major climatic events, achieving multiple key benefits on the very same land.”
SolarPower Europe (2020). Agri-PV: How solar enables the clean energy transition in rural areas. Briefing Paper. Accessed 11 February 2021.
1. Rauline (2021). Sharing the sky: The case for agrivoltaics. https://renew.org.au/renew-magazine/solar-batteries/sharing-the-sky-the-case-for-agrivoltaics/. Accessed 12 February 2021.
2. EPRS (2019) European Parliamentary Research Service. Irrigation in EU agriculture. Accessed 12 February 2021.