Near the end of the last ice age, rainfall subsided resulting in the loss of vegetation and reduction in animal species. This environmental change led humans to abandon hunting and foraging practices while pursuing agriculture. Now, humans must contend with rising carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and booming population growth. While there is no silver bullet to address resource constraints, one idea is gaining traction among farmers, environmental scientists, engineers and utility professionals — agrivoltaics.
Agrivoltaics is the coordination of agriculture and solar energy assets to create a symbiotic relationship that is mutually beneficial for both energy and crop yields. In a functioning agrivoltaics system, panels are installed high enough above ground so that plants can grow underneath. This is a nascent solution to some complex problems. Before agrivoltaics can become a reality for energy providers, utilities, farmers or energy co-ops, more research and studies are required to identify how this could effectively work.
Various research studies are underway to better understand the benefits and drawbacks of agrivoltaics. The Sustainably Collocating Agricultural and Photovoltaic Electricity Systems (SCAPES) program, for example, is set up across different regions of the country and in different natural environments to determine what types of crops will grow using agrivoltaics and how to manage crops and solar assets. Among early findings: While tomatoes and peppers thrive when grown under solar panels, this is not the case for all fruits, vegetables or herbs; native plants grown under solar panels can entice pollinators, which can improve crop yields.
In Northeast Michigan, beets thrive as they require a temperature of approximately 65 degrees in the soil to germinate. Not all plants, vegetables or fruits will thrive in an agrivoltaics system. For beets, too much shade early in the season will inhibit germination. During planting season, solar panels should not cover the site where the seeds are planted, but when June arrives, providing shade will actually help beet roots thrive.
Agricultural practices demonstrate that barley and grain crops — including soybeans, corn and wheat — may not be suitable for agrivoltaics, but permacrops, such as lavender or mint, have the potential to flourish in this type of system. Unfortunately, these permacrops can be invasive.
Currently, we know that agrivoltaics offer a novel solution to myriad environmental, agricultural and energy conundrums. Before this type of system is implemented, we must address serious and consequential questions. For example, how will solar panels and the ancillary infrastructure withstand thunderstorms or tornados? Should food regulators use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to check for broken glass in vegetation? How will this impact energy generation and demand? Finally, and most importantly, what crops will thrive using agrivoltaics in different regions of the country?
Energy and food shortages caused by the war in Ukraine and supply chain issues have created new incentives to build agrivoltaics systems. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that building an agrivoltaics system will yield results in the near term. In the long term, agrivoltaics has the potential to create jobs, improve certain crop yields and generate additional electricity for the grid. While this might not be a solution we can implement today, the future of agrivoltaics is bright.
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