Growing Crops Under Solar Panels Makes Both Thrive

A new study shows that shared land use works.

Dec 9, 2019

(Neil Mitchell / Shutterstock.com)

As countries make the switch to renewable energy, solar power is a major player. All you need is sunlight and land to use for solar panels. It's that easy.

Solar Fields are unusually located outside of the cities that will use the power that is generated. But that land is traditionally used for agriculture, so choices have to be made about land use. But what if a singular system could both generate renewable energy and grow food at the same time on the same land? Well that’s exactly what researchers at the University of Arizona have been doing. 

“Many of us want more renewable energy, but where do you put all of those panels? As solar installations grow, they tend to be out on the edges of cities, and this is historically where we have already been growing our food,” said Greg Barron-Gafford, an associate professor in the School of Geography and Development according to a University of Arizona news release.

Typically, when looking at available land covers that can provide maximum solar energy potential, many of the options are croplands. And since agricultural lands are scarce, using such lands for energy production would have to be carefully considered according to the study.

“So which land use do you prefer – food or energy production? This challenge strikes right at the intersection of human-environment connections, and that is where geographers shine!" said Barron-Gafford. "We started to ask, ‘Why not do both in the same place?'"

Over the course of a year, study in Nature Sustainability analyzed what is known as agrivoltaics in a land-sharing process that integrates agriculture and solar energy into a symbiotic system; meaning that vegetables are planted in the shade of solar panels.

So, instead of having to decide between energy production and food production, the researchers decided to combine the two, and were amazed at the compatibility and success of the partnership.  

The result of the study found that the agrivoltaics system assisted the crops by regulating air temperatures, reducing direct sunlight, and increasing moisture in the air. Panels also protected the crops from intense winds and protected the crops from the intense sunlight. 

And, not only did the panels help the plants, but the plants also increased the efficiency of the solar panels by cooling them via transpiration. In mixed crop solar farms, the skin temperature is 18 degrees cooler than in open fields. This can create a much safer work environment as farm laborers in the Southwest are at risk of heat stroke and other heat-related dangers

"Those overheating solar panels are actually cooled down by the fact that the crops underneath are emitting water through their natural process of transpiration – just like misters on the patio of your favorite restaurant," Barron-Gafford said. "All told, that is a win-win-win in terms of bettering our how we grow our food, utilize our precious water resources, and produce renewable energy.”

The most recent study analyzed cherry tomatoes, jalapenos and chiltepin peppers, but other crops such as chard, kale, and herbs have already been planted in the arid Arizona terrain using the agrivoltaic method. 

Barron-Gafford hopes to widen the scope of the research and is partnering with the US Department of Energy to investigate the potential of such a system in other parts of the country. 

Furthermore, a study from the University of Oregon have found that regions such as the Middle East and Southern Africa are also prime locations for agrivoltaic systems. This can go a long way towards both powering and feeding the world.

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HILLA BENZAKEN, CONTRIBUTOR
Hilla Benzaken is a dedicated optimist. Her happy place involves cooking, acting, gardening, and fighting for social justice. She writes about all things sustainability, innovation, and DIY.