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How Solar Panels Can Help with Agriculture

February 9, 2020

Note: This is a different type of post than I normally do, but I was inspired by learning about community solar farms and how solar and agriculture can work together.

 

Last summer, laws in Maine changed that make community solar farms more viable. Since then, many companies have been looking for land to use for those solar arrays, and farmland is a prime choice since it’s already cleared and in a good location for sunlight.

 

At first glance, this seems like a difficult choice – after all, both food and renewable energy are important.

 

But what if you can have both? Some people have been experimenting with this idea, called agrivoltaics, with good results.

 

Planting under solar panels

To make this work, solar panels need to be high enough off the ground to have crops planted under them. This usually means elevating them 7 1/2 feet or more above the ground. This requires more up-front investment in the arrays, but some feel the gain is worth it based on crop production.

 

Crops tested so far include cherry tomatoes, peppers, and greens such as kale, and the results have been good. While the plants don’t receive direct sunlight, they still get enough light to grow. Having solar panels overhead also provides some protection from cold, allowing for a longer growing season.

 

But the benefits don’t stop there. 

 

This also makes the solar array more efficient. When the panels get too hot, they don’t produce as much energy, but the plants beneath moderate the temperature. Rather like a mister, the plants release water in high temperatures, and that in turn keeps the panels cooler. This also results in better water retention in the soil, which helps the plants grow.

 

Those gathering the food stay cooler, too, when they’re in the shade of the solar panels. Some research has shown that skin temperature is 18° F cooler when working with these systems than when using traditional agriculture. As temperatures rise due to climate change, those cooler temperatures are going to be even more important.

 

Not just food crops

For those worried about the expense of elevated solar panels, or the possible difficulty of getting farm equipment through the arrays without causing damage, there’s another option.

 

Planting for pollinators. 

 

Instead of turfgrass, those with the arrays may choose to plant native species under the solar panels to attract butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. Given the alarming drop in these species in recent years, this could be an effective way of providing additional habitat for them while also increasing energy production.

 

It’s important to note that these pollinators don’t stay in the areas under the arrays. They also head out to neighboring agricultural fields, which offers another way of helping food production.

 

Plus, native plants tend to be more attractive and hardier for their climate than straight grass.

 

Finding win-win solutions

As our climate changes, we’re going to have to get creative about ways to address it, and it’s even better if we can use that creativity to find solutions that are a win all around. 

 

Planting crops or native plants under solar arrays is one option that offers a lot of benefits. It supports multiple uses of the land, improves energy production, increases our food supply, and can make a more sustainable environment for those collecting the food. 

 

I don’t know if farmers or solar producers in Maine are thinking about this approach, but I hope at least some are since it seems like a great way to work towards a better future for all of us.

 

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