Agrivoltaics — Harnessing the Sun and Soil
Ensuring adequate food supply and accelerating extensive renewable energy adoption are vital components of sustainable progress in every nation.
In the coming years, a growing population and improving living standards are expected to intensify the demand for food, potentially straining agricultural land resources. Enter agrivoltaics (also referred to agrovoltaics), a promising solution to this pressing challenge that combines photovoltaic installations with agricultural land use.
In this comprehensive guide, we delve into the intricacies of agrivoltaics, exploring its types, benefits, compatible crops, solar panel technologies, and its current global and Indian practices.
What is agrivoltaics?
Agrivoltaics, a portmanteau of “agriculture” and “photovoltaics”, refers to the use of land for two purposes: agriculture and solar power generation.
This ingenuous approach not only helps promote sustainable rural development but also safeguards biodiversity and the ecosystem.
Types of agrivoltaics
The three basic approaches for agrivoltaics include:
Ground-mounted solar panels
This method is the most common in large-scale solar projects, typically above 5 MW. It increases animal welfare by providing them easy access to shade. It also allows farmers to cultivate permanent vegetation and pasture between and below the solar panels, supporting grazing. Additionally, ground-mounted solar panels act as protective canopies, shielding crops from adverse weather conditions.
Elevated solar panels
This approach involves positioning solar panels 2.5 to 5 meters above the ground and is particularly suitable for larger crops such as fruits, trees, and vineyards. Elevated solar panels ensure unobstructed sunlight access for crops, promoting their optimal growth.
This agrivoltaics method has witnessed significant popularity in recent years. It involves the installation of solar panels on greenhouse roofs. The electricity generated can be injected into the grid, stored, consumed, and fulfil the greenhouse's electricity requirements, all without any adverse impact on production.
Benefits of agrivoltaics
Reduced financial risk for farmers
Traditional farming is well-known for its inherent financial risks, largely stemming from dependence on unpredictable weather conditions. During periods of unfavourable weather and low agricultural yields, agrivoltaics offers a safety net. Farmers can rely on the consistent supply of electricity to power their homes and even generate additional income by selling surplus electricity to the government and non-government power firms.
Agrivoltaics allows for a double harvest from a single piece of land – solar energy and crops. Solar panels provide shade that can benefit shade-tolerant crops, enhancing agricultural productivity.
Lower water consumption
Solar panels' partial shading effect reduces the water requirements for irrigation, promoting efficient water use in farming practices.
Increased crop yields
The shade provided by panels not only protects crops from extreme temperatures but also contributes to increased crop yields, as shown by several studies. Additionally, PV panels create a microclimate conducive to the growth of certain crops, further enhancing productivity.
Data and Idea: Agrovoltaic.org
Improved solar panel efficiency
Just as crops are affected by high temperatures, solar panels can experience decreased efficiency. Agrivoltaics helps maintain optimal panel performance by regulating temperatures. The presence of crops around solar panels keeps them cool, preventing any decline in their energy generation capacity.
What kind of crops can be grown in agrivoltaic farms?
The type of crops that can be grown in agrivoltaic farms depends on a number of factors, including the climate, the amount of sunlight available, and the height of the solar panels.
However, some crops that have been shown to be well-suited for agrivoltaics include:
Leafy greens, such as lettuce, spinach, and kale, are relatively shade-tolerant and can be grown under a variety of solar panel configurations.
Root crops, such as potatoes, radishes, beets, and carrots, can also be grown under solar panels. The solar panels can help to protect the crops from the sun's heat and wind.
Some fruits, such as strawberries and blueberries, can also be grown under solar panels. However, these crops may require more sunlight than leafy greens or root crops.
Vine crops, such as tomatoes and grapes, can also be grown under solar panels. However, these crops may require taller solar panels so that the vines can grow underneath them.
Herbs, such as basil, mint, and rosemary, are also well-suited for agrivoltaics. They can be grown in pots or beds under the solar panels.
In addition to these crops, there are a number of other crops that may be suitable for agrivoltaics. The best way to determine which crops are best for a particular site is to consult with a local agricultural expert.
Which types of solar panels are compatible with agrivoltaics?
Some PV technologies that are commonly used for agrivoltaics include:
Monocrystalline solar panels
These are among the most efficient types of solar panels. Monocrystalline panels are made from a single crystal of silicon, which gives them their high efficiency.
Polycrystalline solar panels
These are less efficient than monocrystalline panels, but also less expensive. Polycrystalline panels are made from multiple crystals of silicon, which gives them a slightly bluer colour than monocrystalline solar panels.
Some solar manufacturers are also exploring other PV technologies, such as thin-film solar panels, for agrivoltaics.
In general, the best solar panels for agrivoltaics are those that are:
Efficient: This means that they can generate more electricity from the same amount of sunlight.
Durable: They need to be able to withstand the harsh conditions of the outdoors, such as rain, snow, and wind.
Flexible: They can be mounted in a variety of ways to accommodate different crops and farming practices.
Transparent: They allow enough sunlight to reach the crops below.
Where is agrivoltaics being practiced currently?
Numerous countries, notably industrialized ones like China, Japan, Germany, Italy, and France, have made remarkable strides in scaling up agrivoltaics with the help of dedicated national support initiatives.
The global agrivoltaics capacity, as of 2020, reached an impressive 2.8 GW, representing a substantial increase from a mere 5 MW in 2014, as highlighted in the 2023 report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) titled Agrivoltaics in India: Challenges and Opportunities for Scale-Up.
In India, agrivoltaics is still in its developmental stages and has not yet reached commercial-scale deployment. Nevertheless, the country is taking noteworthy steps in this direction, with several pilot projects established across the nation.
To facilitate awareness and tracking of these initiatives, the National Solar Energy Federation of India and the Indo-German Energy Forum have collaboratively developed an interactive webpage, complete with a map displaying the locations of agrivoltaic pilot projects in India. View the map here.