Misconceptions abound when it comes to the relationship between solar and agriculture. Many people fear solar’s impact on the land and soil, losing arable acreage, or livelihood erasure. But solar and farming are actually great partners.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) says that agricultural land used for solar maintains its soil quality and may see enhanced biodiversity over the life of an installation. This is particularly true when partnering panels with planting pollinator-friendly species, soil-retentive vegetation, and nutrient-rich crops. Further, utility-scale solar development utilizes a small fraction of land when compared to acreage lost to housing developments, roadways, and other industry; this number is even less when integrating panels with ongoing agricultural activity. Lastly, many landowners and generational farmers find that hosting solar on their cropland diversifies their revenue streams. Farming is an increasingly difficult venture, and leasing land for solar can both stabilize income and yield potential cost savings, even when crops struggle.
In all of these scenarios, co-located solar and crops, or “agrivoltaics,” hold promise for the future. Let’s take a look at how these practices can benefit farmers and solar developers alike.
On the farming side, a 2019 study found that combined energy and crop production increases land productivity by up to 70 percent. Solar panels can create microclimates that enable planting new, high-value, shade-resistant crops, and that overall increase agricultural yields, even for some shade-intolerant species.
Many agrivoltaic plots demonstrate reduced irrigation needs, as plants grown under panels lose less water to the atmosphere when compared to growth in direct sunlight. This enhanced retention not only reduces farmers’ water bills but may also improve agricultural success as water scarcity increasingly threatens yields. Additionally, panels can extend growing seasons and directly protect crops from extreme weather impacts.
Combining panels with animal grazing holds promise. Sheep, for example, fit underneath panels and can manage the surrounding vegetation, saving landowners and solar developers time, money, and energy. Other farmers may benefit from sowing pollinator-friendly and native vegetation under an installation. These plants support healthy soils and bolster growth in adjacent croplands by attracting invaluable animal species.
Finally, agrivoltaics allow many agricultural landowners to maximize financial stability. Compared to farm-only scenarios, co-location may increase annual net revenues by 300 to 5000 percent and reduce volatility from worst-case situations where crops fail or are destroyed. What’s more, these agricultural integration techniques support not just a single person or family, but can additionally provide localized, community energy and economic stimuli in rural areas.
Solar developers will find that agricultural partnerships can reduce their costs and check a lot of boxes for ideal siting: the lands are typically already flat and tilled, eliminating the time and costs typically required for clearing and grading land. The previously-disturbed land may pose less geotechnical and environmental review challenges compared to risks on other sites. Cropland can also alleviate accessibility issues – farms are typically in reasonable proximity to pre-existing roads and power infrastructure, minimizing needs for new construction.
Agricultural solar developments maximize production potential when compared to other projects. A recent study indicated croplands as one of the top three land covers associated with greatest solar PV power production. While PVs require sunlight to produce energy, the sun’s heat can reduce their performance. Vegetation and produce planted under solar modules can reduce soil temperatures and provide a cooling effect via the water released through transpiration. This in turn can boost production by up to 10 percent.
The Future of Farming
As the solar industry continues to grow and we work toward meeting clean energy goals, integration with agriculture will be an essential practice. Moving forward, there are a few key factors to consider if we are to execute these initiatives in the most effective manner. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) suggests the following best practices:
Leyline looks forward to engaging in this developing market. If you are looking for investment in your solar projects, please send us an email at email@example.com.