One family farm in Longmont, Colorada has been transformed into a #solar #energy research site with a unique purpose. Bryon Kominek and his family, with the help of the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), the University of Arizona, and Colorado State University, have begun positioning solar panels on their farm alongside their growing crops, as well as their beehives. The goal is to have at least 3,000 solar panels covering portions of the farm, meaning a substantial portion of the farm’s crops will be covered in shade. This particular solar panel positioning and union with #agriculture is known as #agrivoltaics.
The History of Agrivoltaics
#Agrivoltaic is a term you likely have not heard before. Agrivoltaics describes the process of using the same land area for both solar power and #agricultural purposes. The process was first introduced not too long ago in the early 1980s, when physicist Adolf Goetzberger first proposed the idea of using the same land area for both plant cultivation and solar energy production. It was not until decades later in 2011, however, that the term ‘agrivoltaic’ would first be seen in formal literature.
Agrivoltaic solar systems have two primary functions. The first is water retention. In hot climates where plants are more likely to lose water due to evaporation, the shade provided by the solar panels can help reduce water loss. Agrivoltaic solar systems also help to regulate heat flow for crops. Not only does the shade of the solar panels help protect the plants from excessive sunlight, they also help regulate the temperature of the air around plants.
Agrivoltaic Solar System Benefits
According to Jordan Macknick, lead energy analyst of the National Renewable Energy Lab, locations like Colorado can particularly benefit from agrivoltaic solar systems. The solar panels help the plants avoid pausing photosynthesis due to overheating during the hottest parts of the day. As long as the solar panels are positioned properly and elevated high enough above the crops, they work as a win-win for both solar energy and agricultural production. These kinds of multi-use strategies and innovations are becoming increasingly popular in the solar energy realm and for good reason. Using the structure of the solar panels themselves to shade and protect farmland will help increase crop yields overall and protect certain worker insects, like bees.
National and Worldwide Agrivoltaic Projects
Colorado is not the only state in our nation to be experimenting with agrivoltaics. In the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, pea, carrot, pepper, and chard crops are protected under the cover of solar panels. The leader of the Sonoran Desert project, biogeographer Greg Barron-Gafford, mentioned that the agrivoltaic solar system provides an “evaporative cooling effect.” This helps the plants remain cool, but also improves their efficiency.
The U.S. Department of Energy project known as InSPIRE, works to gather data from various agrivoltaic sites, measuring both energy output and crop production yields. This network of agrivoltaic solar sites allows researchers to gather important data that can help them determine how to make the union between #solar energy and agriculture even more efficient. Barron-Gafford, whose Sonoran Desert project is a part of the InSPIRE, stated that 2019 is the year that agrivoltaics will really take off. The weather extremes of 2018 have left Barron-Gafford and many other officials in the solar energy community confident that agrivoltaics are only just beginning to take off. In agreeance with Barron-Gafford, Jordan Macknick of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory told Wired.com that their agrivoltaic solar research sites will be expanding greatly in 2019. He is predicting that with the data they are collecting, in addition to the efforts from solar energy researchers worldwide, agrivoltaics is “poised to explode.”
Globally, countries like Japan, China, Germany, Italy, and many others have begun experimenting with agrivoltaic solar systems, especially in countries where limited land space is becoming a growing concern, such as in Japan. There are more than 1,000 agrivoltaic solar plants in Japan alone and contracts have been signed in preparation for the construction of more agrivoltaic sites in 2019.