Study: Mating Solar Energy with Farming Makes $ense

July 23, 2018


Fraunhofer Institute:

Until now, acreage was designated for either photovoltaics or photosynthesis, that is, to generate electricity or grow crops. An agrophotovoltaics (APV) pilot project near Lake Constance, however, has now demonstrated that both uses are compatible. Dual use of land is resource efficient, reduces competition for land and additionally opens up a new source of income for farmers. For one year, the largest APV system in Germany is being tested on the Demeter farm cooperative Heggelbach. In the demonstration project “Agrophotovoltaic – Resource Efficient Land Use” (APV-Resola)” led by the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE, solar modules for electricity production are installed directly above crops covering an area of one third hectare. Now the first solar harvest of power and produce has been collected on both levels.


Last November, CleanTechnica brought readers news of an experiment by Fraunhofer Institute For Solar Energy Systems that combined solar panels with agriculture. Fraunhofer calls its unique installation, which mounts the solar panels high enough to allow farm equipment and animals to move freely underneath, agrophotovoltaics or APV. The results from the first experimental program near Lake Constance in southwestern Germany found combining agriculture and farming increased the output of the land by 60% over what it would be if the same land was devoted 100% to farming or 100% to solar panels.



“From the perspective of agricultural science, agrophotovoltaics is a promising solution for increasing both the land use efficiency and the share of renewable energy provided by the agricultural sector,” says professor Iris Lewandowski, who heads up the department of biobased products and energy crops at the University of Hohenheim.

Since last year, Fraunhofer has applied the lessons learned from the Lake Constance experiment to three agricultural environments in Chile and a shrimp farm in Vietnam. In all cases, the benefits suggested by the first pilot project in Germany have been confirmed.

Three Experimental Farms In Chile

According to a Fraunhhofer press release, three identical 13 kWp APV systems were constructed in various locations in Chile. Researchers were interested in finding out which plants benefited from the shading from the APV array. Sensors measured meteorological data like solar radiation, humidity, soil moisture, and ground temperature.

The first APV system was installed on a farm using very professional methods to grow broccoli and cauliflower. The solar electricity was used in the production process to clean, package and cool the produce. The second APV was installed on a family run farm that grows herbs and other crops.

The third system was set up in a remote region where access to the electricity grid is available but service is frequently interrupted. The APV plant provided electricity for seven families while providing power to an incubator for hatching chicken eggs, among other things.

The three pilot farms will be monitored for three years. Different types of crops will be grown to determine which ones adapt best to the APV environment.  “At the beginning of the project, there was a transfer of technology and know-how from Germany to Chile. In the meanwhile, the transfer is taking place at the same level in both directions. Fraunhofer ISE is profiting from the new experiences with APV in Chile and vice versa,” reports Stephan Schindele, project head of Agrophotovoltaics at Fraunhofer ISE.

The partial shading of crops planted beneath the APV scaffolding can reduce the need for irrigation. Various fruits which normally do not grow well in dry climates with high solar radiation can flourish when shaded by an APV system and livestock can benefit from less exposure to the sun. The electricity generated can power water pumps or desalination systems. In addition, it can be used for cooling and processing crops, making them preservable and therefore more profitable.

In remote regions, the quality of life is improved by access to electricity that provides improved access to information, education, and better medical care. In sub-Saharan Africa, about 92% of the rural population have no access to electricity. APV offers new sources of income to the local population and at the same time reduces the dependence on the fossil fuels that are often used to run diesel generators.

Meanwhile, in the US, organized fossil fuel opposition is seeking to slow adoption of solar generation in rural communities.

Farmers, however, are strongly interested.

Lansing State Journal (Michigan):

My family has farmed for five generations in mid-Michigan. Today I grow corn, wheat and soybeans in Eaton, Ingham and Jackson Counties.

Like anyone in agriculture, I believe farmland should be preserved for the future and that we should do all we can to protect our air, land and water for future generations. In addition, we should seek opportunities to bring new jobs and new investment to rural communities throughout Michigan.

Solar energy is one way to fulfill all of those goals. Right now, Eaton County is considering whether solar panels will be allowed on farmland in the county, and for multiple reasons, this is simply the right thing to do.

First, solar energy and farmland preservation go hand in hand. Solar panels provide an opportunity to set aside farmland without causing lasting impact to the land or hampering the ability to grow crops on it in the future.

While farmland that’s used for solar energy is taken out of agricultural production for a time, it’s no different than the successful conservation programs, like the Conservation Reserve Program or other set-aside programs embraced by many in agriculture over the decades. These programs preserve farmland by ensuring it is not permanently taken out of production.

Second, solar energy is an effective conservation strategy. By taking land out of active farming for a time, there are significant benefits to soil health that help keep farmland healthy and productive well into the future. Setting aside land for conservation benefits is a proven a strategy American agriculture has used since the Dust Bowl days of the 1930’s to prevent erosion, protect our best soil and make sure we can continue to reliably produce crops.

Solar panels also provide an opportunity to plant wildflowers and other appropriate pollinator habitat, which is a leading focus for farmers and conservation advocates across the nation. Expanding pollinator habitat is incredibly important for anyone in production agriculture, as farms of all sizes and types benefit from pollinators and strive to protect them.

Finally, solar energy is a long-term economic engine for rural communities, creating new investment and new jobs.

Utility-scale solar panels benefit farmers, small businesses and rural communities by creating new tax revenue, providing funds that are needed for important public services that we all use. Solar energy also creates Michigan jobs, and as new solar investments are made in our state, additional jobs will follow. For farmers, investments in solar energy help to level the “roller coaster” cycle of agricultural markets that causes tremendous uncertainty in agriculture.

As a farmer, I harness the sun to grow crops and enhance my business. Solar energy is the same concept. It gives us a way to bring economic benefits and new jobs to rural communities, protect and preserve farmland, improve the environment, and ensure a strong agriculture sector well into the future. I encourage Eaton County to allow solar panels on farmland, which will benefit families, businesses and farmers throughout the region.

Gary Haynes is a fifth-generation local farmer with fields in Ingham, Eaton and Jackson counties.


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