Agrivoltaics Is A Land Usage Hack For Maximum Productivity

Land tends to be a valuable thing. Outside of some weird projects in Dubai, by and large, they aren’t making any more of it. That means as we try to feed and power the ever-growing population of humanity, we need to think carefully about how we use the land we have.

The field of agrivoltaics concerns itself with the dual-use of land for both food production and power generation. It’s all about getting the most out of the the available land and available sunlight we have.

Two Things At Once

The world has limited land that is suitable for food production. Prime agricultural land is prized for its ability to grow crops at high yields. This often comes down to factors like favorable soils, readily-available water supplies, and plenty of sunlight.

As it turns out, though, agricultural land is perfect for installing solar panels, too. Solar installations want as much sun as possible, and they don’t like getting too hot. The cooler, moist conditions of farming lands make them more attractive than deserts for solar panels, as the lower temperatures help the panels remain in their most efficient operating range.

Vineyards can potentially add solar power as a revenue stream, while simultaneously reaping the benefits of less water loss due to the shade provided. Credit: SunAgri, press release

Thus, for land with plenty of sun and mild conditions, it makes sense to try and use it for both food production and power generation. The field of agrivoltaics concerns itself with finding optimum methods to achieve this.

The most important consideration is one of shade. If the solar panels are installed without due care, there will be insufficient sunlight to grow any meaningful produce. At that point, you’re just doing photovoltaics, and you’ve thrown the agriculture out the window. Typically, the trick is to raise the panels at a significant height off the ground to allow workers and machinery to access the crops below. This does add significant cost, which is the trade-off for such combined installations.

When it comes to agrivoltaics, plant choice is key. Those that grow well in shady conditions are ideal, while those that require full sun are a poor choice. Tomatoes, lettuce, and simple grasses can do well in an agrivoltaic setup, as they can grow successfully with a low amount of sunlight. Broadacre crops like wheat, on the other hand, deliver very poor yields under such conditions, and are not a suitable choice.

The BayWa r.e. project in Europe has found success with a variety of agrivoltaic systems across the Netherlands and Germany. These consist of various berries and vegetables grown underneath raised photovoltaic panels. This actually brought a surprise benefit on hotter days. The shade from the panels on these days actually helped cool the plants, reducing evaporation and heat stress. The panel installation also appeared to help keep the growing area warmer overnight, reducing the need for plastic covers to protect delicate berries from the cold.

Vineyards can also benefit from such installations. Installing panels above vines in France helped reduce water demand, as the plants were protected from the worst of the sun during heatwaves. During one experiment run by Sun’Agri, the grapes produced by solar-shaded vines also had improved aromatic properties, making them more desirable for use in winemaking.

Meanwhile, a Chinese project has found a way to mitigate the shading problem for more flexibility. Grooved glass panels are installed interspersed with solar panels at a height of several meters above the ground. The glass panels act to scatter sunlight evenly across the crops below, mitigating the shading effect of the solar panels. In testing, crop yields were equal or better than under normal conditions, and adding LED lighting to the system enabled the production of an even higher quality crop.

More basic systems can work too. Some elect to simply install solar panels on agricultural land, slightly raised up to allow sheep or other animals to graze underneath. As long as there’s enough sun to keep the grass growing, it’s a straightforward way to combine food production and power generation on the same tract of land.  In one Greek trial of this methodology, the sheep provide the useful benefit of vegetation control. No mowing is required to avoid excessive grass growth and fire risks. Instead, the grazing keeps the grass in check.

As the world turns to solar power for more of its energy needs, there will necessarily be a hunt on for more land to install panels on. Armed with agrivoltaic techniques, humanity will be best placed to get the most possible out of the limited agricultural land we have to rely on. Expect to see more farms turning to agrivoltaics in future, both for the added revenue stream from solar power, and to help provide the clean energy our societies so desperately need .

53 thoughts on “Agrivoltaics Is A Land Usage Hack For Maximum Productivity

  1. At > billion more every decade since the early 60s, dumped on this dying planet and ever more environmentally hazardous planet, THAT’S the primary stupid human trick we ought to “think carefully” about carrying on with. Overpopulation is clearly the hottest fuel driving deadly climate change-and there’s no undo button for every incremental contribution.

    1. Only if the population insists on trying to live as though it is still the petrochemical or Industrial Revolution boom – consuming conspicuously and with more of an eye to cheap than clean and efficient! Which back then didn’t matter so much there being much fewer people living that way.

      Live more ecologically soundly and a larger population is plausible without entirely wrecking the joint, though I agree population control isn’t a bad idea, done to the extreme could let the survivors do whatever they liked as there are not enough of us left to make much difference to the planet as a whole… But nobody should seriously like that idea.

        1. I do what I can within the society I am part of – can’t ask for better that doing what is possible! And not being wealthy usually do it rather cheaply though DIY and salvage type methods!

          Currently I have no car, though life I think may force that to change sooner rather than later, have fitted solar so a good proportion of my energy use despite the tiny roof area of a UK house is as clean as you can get, replaced my old dual xeon server/workstation with much more energy efficient Pi ver 1 machines for most of the always online server roles years ago (and for a while there was a 3-4 min delay on the higher end demands first use as the Pi remote booted the workstation as needed for the task), use a Pi4 for nearly all my desktop needs, and when that workstation died it was replaced by the most power efficient machine I could afford sufficient for the job. My smartphone is something like 8 years old (might well be older), until recently the most modern portable computer I owned was about 10 years old – no throwaway electronics culture here, if its still fit for purpose its used… We also grow a fair bit of our own veg, and a nice pile of flowering plants with waterbuts for irrigation…

          There are lots of little things you can do even within a very limited budget and restrictive society to make your life less destructive to the world we all live in, and ultimately if everyone put a little more priority on efficiency and longevity over cheap disposable ‘stylish’ crap everyone currently alive on Earth could live something very much like today’s average European lifestyle…

        1. That will work, but it also selects for women of particular characteristics, i.e. those who use those options will contribute far less to the genepool, and you can guess what the long term outcome of that is. And Yeah I know some people will get their back up over that observation but it is a very real phenomena and the scale is irrelevant over the long term if it is an accumulative effect.

      1. Sounds like a nice idea but can be complex and/or mathematically unsound. “Leveling up”, leads to even more consumption. “Leveling down” would work but would be unpopular. Some variant of “averaging out” could work (provided there is an overall reduction in consumption and population declines come about as suggested). Given our history so far a complex solution like this seems unlikely.

        1. Mathmatically it is not hard to prove plausible back of the envelope style – pick a spec for quality of diet, energy consumption to call average now, ideally assume some efficiency improvements on things like transport, insulation, food and e-waste (though depending on which European nation you picked not all that needed) and there is easily enough energy and land/sea area for the current population to be supported in that ballpark of lifestyle..

          tis obviously rather more complex in the real world, for one thing created a stable ecology that would have to be so very artificial and managed is going to be challenging (and depending on your point of view criminal damage – which is the side I’d pick myself just because we can modify the planet to suit our needs so much doesn’t mean we should so completely destroy the natural ballance) and to actually get that level for everyone would require unprecedented levels of global co-operation – so at least any time soon its entirely a pipe dream.

          And even more obviously I’d hope just because its plausible to support the current global population doesn’t mean the current growth trend is remotely sustaintable – there is a resource limit that even the most charitable estimates will say is exceeded in the near future on the current course.

        1. I suppose there’s no telling how well most of these would score on IQ tests.
 But the world’s richest and one of the leading eco-idiots has six. Furthermore, Time Mag’s Man of the Year’s next stupid human trick is a proposed super tunnel beneath super quake prone LA. Last but not least, Musk says people are just not popping them out fast enough. How climate “smart” is that?

      2. Actually birth rates are so low because women want to have a career there in a world that hates mothers. Do what you wanna do is design everything in a way that it’s impossible for working women to have children, and then make sure they still want the job.

    2. On a long enough timeline, Malthus is always right. People universally hate this (except for a few of the worst people on earth, which makes it even harder to accept).
      We’ll never be able to out-industrialize our addiction to industry. And we’ll never succeed at finding infinite growth in space. We also won’t succeed at (intentional) degrowth. What is going to happen is the same thing that has happened to the population of every single organism on Earth throughout all of history:
      We’ll explode in resource usage until we hit the ceiling of the environment’s resource availability, then we’ll crash and have a massive die-off. That will be what fixes it, it will be the only thing that ever fixes it, and it won’t be our choice at all. The only way out is through.

      1. While I sadly think you are going to be correct I’d like to hope we are going to prove smart enough to come together and avoid such an extreme result. There are certainly enough educated and rational folk out there, to make it remotely possible. And it has happened in the past more than once with things like ‘the Blitz spirit’ of WWII which rather proves that under such duress but with some time to adapt folks that wouldn’t normally rub shoulders can and will look out for each other and work to the common goals good for ‘everyone’ (on the whole).

        1. Odds are very much against IMO. The most likely thing to happen is war. Does not take much to provoke a war in current times of relative prosperity with a certain oil and gas rich nation currently being an aggressor. In times of rapidly diminishing resources it’s gonna be utter carnage. (sorry). It’s kind of natural really. And the planet will be just fine …. humanity is just a blink on it’s timescale.

          1. While I hope otherwise sadly I agree, though war doesn’t have to create a massive population crash – It certainly can, and if it drags on will, as farms can’t be worked, water and electric supply maintained etc. Though definition of the ‘the planet’ could change just how ‘fine’ it will be – some rock(s) will orbit the sun even if they bear not much resemblance to today…

            But as Ukraine largely shows a large part of the world largely unified in disapproval and chipping in can protect vast numbers from the worst of a war, and while I don’t see that conflict ending any time particularly soon the population lost to it while tragic doesn’t look likely to be much of a crash for either side, the Ukrainians were reasonably well prepared and many have left and the Russians can only loose conscripts – The Russian population demographics are going to be skewed a fair bit loosing almost exclusively so many of the ‘young’ men but the population totals are not going to be all that massively changed any time soon.

            So while wars may well be inevitable, there is hope – if its one or two tinpot dictators, who need their personal Stasi and state media control to keep their own population working for them… Well then picking fights with their neighbor who happens to have half a globe or more of friends who are willing to get involved just means they loose and their hording for themselves most of the nations wealth likely goes away as well- more for everyone and a few less people to share it around, but not the major population boom/bust cycle..

      2. First, every single other organism that ever was Earth were not humans. They were driven purely by instinct and/or motivated by forces even more primitive than that. Instead, almost everything, or at least a whole lot of what humans do, happens by CHOICE, and by anticipating future gains from previous plans and actions. Second, IF we assume that most humans are what can be described as “good”, “compassionate”, “understanding” and rational creatures, then the more fortunate, better educated and more influential among them should be motivated to enlighten the rest against destructive behaviors-especially when it seriously jeopardizes the survival and relatively decent living standards of most people, and what’s left of Earth’s biodiversity and historic green space. And all of that can only happen by substantially reducing the factors that principally accelerate climate change. So comparing humans, as you have, to ALL other life that ever was, and what decided their fate, is an unconscionable cop-out.

    3. What? Population is declining world wide except for a few places. The net is about 80 million per year right now. As those remaining places achieve a level of prosperity it will go down – unless you do something that prevents prosperity. kWh per person in all forms of energy is key.

      Forested area is increasing globally. If warming predictions come true, northern tundra which is 20% of the Earth’s surface and the northern forests can become productive environments and/or carbon sinks.

      Don’t panic.

      1. It’s common knowledge that the rate has been at least 100 million/yr since the early 60s. How else could we have reached 7.97 billion now? And given that climate change-which all leading climate experts have concluded is at least 85% driven by human activity (+ CO2 output)-a yearly drop by the 20 million, as you claim, is the least that should happen.

  2. “Grooved glass panels are installed interspersed with solar panels at a height of several meters above the ground. The glass panels act to scatter sunlight evenly across the crops below, mitigating the shading effect of the solar panels”

    Seems like you could get much of the benefit by just attaching a long, cheap, cylindrical plano-concave lens along one or two sides of each solar panel, to spread sunlight around underneath the panel.

    1. I suspect that would be far to easy to scorch the plants with – its a bit more focused than scattered and diffuse, and probably works out more expensive to produce. Worth a proper investigation as it is certainly very plausible it will do the job better by some metrics and in some setups, but I think this is likely the cheapest functional option.

      1. A plano-concave should have a diverging effect on the light that enters the lens, but I’m sure the concave surface could be given a pebbled or etched effect to diffuse the light even more.

        1. Indeed, its diverging, but more a controlled and focused divergence than the wide more random scattering, though add the surface finish and that might make it a better all round light spread and diffusion system than the glass sheet, except I suspect on cost – the mounting of a sheet that is solar panel size/shape every nth is bound to be cheaper than another bracket part to hold the lens.

    1. Being Dutch I couldn’t say nothing.
      About 20% of our current land area is reclaimed from the “sea” – not everything was open seas, a lot of peaty marshland that flooded anywhere between twice a day to once every few years.
      There are about 4000 polder projects, and the 10 largest projects alone are over 2000km², and range from 1597 to 1969 in creation date.

  3. leave the farms alone
    there are many millions of acres of canal ,roads,car parks,office buildings,industrial acerage,waste land and deserts
    its solution with a clickbait name looking for a problem

    1. Just because the solution isn’t applicable everywhere doesn’t mean it’s not applicable somewhere.

      Or is that: Just because the solution is applicable somewhere doesn’t mean it’s applicable everywhere.

      Either way, it’s a complex world, and more solutions are better than more problems.

  4. Assuming this even works (provides plants enough light and doesn’t cause them to get scorched), why would anyone actually seriously consider this? There are millions of acres of un-farmable land that can have solar panels (if that even makes sense compared to other energy sources like nuclear). What has been gained by this? It has certainly vastly increased the cost of everything from irrigation, tilling, spraying, planting, and harvesting. This is a stupid, grant-hunting, clickbait-farming, vapid concept, and the Hackaday writers should exercise at least minimal levels of credulity before posting this kind of drivel.

    1. Actually from what I’ve been reading the smaller farm machines this likely leads too would only be a good thing for yield (in the medium-long term) and are more compatible with ‘greener’ farming practices. So along with co-habitation of the right crops under the solar, and with the right crop rotations round the fields…

      It likely reduces the costs of the biggest limiting factor in many farming situations, as you won’t need anywhere near as much water with the ground in partial shade, won’t effect the yield much (maybe even end up boosting it for the better – weather conditions dependent), and likely makes the farmer rather more money than just the crops did – as electric is only looking likely to go up in value, which may well even help make food cheaper for everyone.

      Heck if you set it up right the irrigation and spraying you decide to do could be vastly easier for having the solar there! If the solar assemblies have basic spraying arragment built into their frames its assemble it correctly once, and then simply rock up with the tank full of stuff to spray and via whatever method was built in it will be done for you (I’d think a ‘train’ that carries the spray heads down the length is likely best reliability and cost wise).

      Not that I disagree there are other easier places to target with solar first, I just wouldn’t rule this sort of concept out nearly as vehemently as you are – maybe it will work out the way you claim, but then again maybe it turns out to be really rather good! Much more real world testing would be required to actually say either way.

    2. > Assuming this even works (provides plants enough light and doesn’t cause them to get scorched), why would anyone actually seriously consider this?

      I have been raised on a farm, so I can think of a couple reasons:
      – they have access to power lines
      – are accessible by roads
      – have people around to keep watch of the panels
      – the panels protect the crops from hailstones (the damage does not depend much on the location anyway)
      – the land already have proper documentation
      – can provide shade to crops that don’t like too much sunlight (tomatoes and berries, for example)
      – it’s cheaper to install than nuclear, so farmers can buy panels instead of nuclear reactors
      – don’t really increase the cost that much, tomatoes are usually harvested by hand anyway
      – harvesting tomatoes under the shade of solar panels is more bearable than under the sun
      – unfarmable land usually holds an ecosystem, and installing panels will disturb it
      – not every region have millions of acres of unused land

    3. Some of that land is un-farmable for the same reason it’s hard to put up solar panels on: it’s sloped, rocky, or swamp. Let’s not reject it out of hand. It would be great for growing coffee, for sure.

  5. ” The cooler, moist conditions of farming lands make them more attractive than deserts for solar panels, as the lower temperatures help the panels remain in their most efficient operating range.”

    With the current complaints about “nuts” out west “cooler, moist” may be harder to find.

  6. I’m sat here looking at a commercial greenhouse that has employed a thermal screen all summer. This is basically transparent plastic with narrow (~4mm) strips of aluminium woven in. The result is 50% light transmission (other grades are available) which shades the plants in summer but also retains heat in winter. These screens have been used for decades in horticulture. Next to that is a commercial polytunnel with apricot trees under it. The polythene is translucent to moderate the temperature in summer. My point being that in terms of agricultural/horticultural use, partial shading of crops is a well established practice which some critical commenters seem unaware of. Whether a given amount of shade comes from aluminium strips, murky plastic or PVs is immaterial to plants.

  7. They need to engineer crops that can clean the solar panels.

    Or perhaps engineer crops to be solar panels. Ideally, self-wiring with a monitoring network that follows some standard computer interface.

  8. The obvious thing is to plant wind turbines on agricultural land. Doesn’t affect the sun on the crop, and they are cheaper per Mwh than solar. (Both the installation cost, and the operating cost)

  9. Until I read the comments, most of which completely hijacked the intention of the article, I was only going to reply with this: keep your solar arrays off farm land. Not once, so far, have I seen other than land owners and lease holders benefit. The crops do not. The livestock do not. The immediate homes and businesses do not, as the power is shipped far, far away.

    So, given the comments which put all responsibility on women, and get far into eugenics, I think this is a case for Hackaday to step in.

    1. I agree. “Keep your solar arrays off farm land”.
      Crops can produce energy through the oldest method plant>cellulose>heat or the newer cellulose>hydrogen>energy or algae>hydrogen, in addition to numerous other products and carbon absorbing.
      Giving crops a fraction of the available light you get a fraction of the possible outcome.

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