– How solar energy can coincide with agriculture and animal agriculture
Solar energy is more and more popular. Energy recovered from the sun provides homes and businesses with clean energy to meet their needs. Over time, solar panels can significantly reduce costs. However, they take up quite a bit of space.
The researchers found that plants will grow and produce under raised solar panels, and animals can still graze the earth under the panels. Solar energy in agriculture has become possible, and it has proven results. In addition, it allows another source of income for the farmers.
The beginnings of agrivoltaics
The Crop Research and Education Center at the University of Massachusetts conducted research on compatibility of agriculture with solar energy production, also known as agro-voltaic, since 2008. In 2010, construction company owner Dave Marley partnered with researchers at the university to set up 70 solar panels, raised by seven feet above farmland, without any soil disturbance.
The installers left enough space between the solar panels to allow sunlight to reach the plants below. Solar panels remain, as farmers and solar farmers have benefited from dual-use solar installations.
Crop yield under solar panels
Despite less sunlight reaching the crops under solar installations, the crops are still paying off. Forage plants, like grasses, generated around 90% compared to crops not covered by solar panels.
The University of Massachusetts has also grown other plants in addition to pasture grasses, such as peppers, tomatoes, beans, and cilantro. By placing the solar panels with three to four foot spaces between them, the vegetable plants produced almost the same amount as those not under the panels.
Usually grass or gravel is the underlying base for solar installations, but growing plants creates a safe and pollinator-friendly environment. Other Minnesota researchers have native plants grown under solar panels to promote pollination. The pollinators can then do their job and pollinate the crops. Without pollination, crops cannot grow and the economy collapses.
While crop yields do not match the gains from full, open sunlight, the costs do balance out. Solar panels provide energy to farmers, which reduces production costs.
Large agricultural equipment cannot harvest crops grown under solar installations. Therefore, farmers mainly have to harvest the vegetables manually, so there are some limits to what they can plant.
The animals continue to graze
Solar energy in agriculture also works for farm animals. Solar panels raised at least seven feet above the ground allow cattle to continue to graze. Small animals, such as free-range chickens, need a mix of sun and shade, provided by the panels. In addition, chickens can easily access grasses and insects.
Even the largest animals, including most breeds of cattle and some horses, benefit from solar panel installations. Cows have an increased level of comfort in pasture as they have access to shaded areas. Research at the University of Minnesota showed that cows that could rest under solar panels had a internal temperature half a degree lower than those who grazed in the sun all day.
Advantages of agro-voltaics
Landowners and solar developers have benefited from dual-use solar installations. For homeowners, solar panels provide self-generated energy, lowering the cost of utility bills. The panels too block the wind and limit soil erosion to maintain soil health.
Solar developers don’t have to spend as much time preparing the ground for installation, as most agricultural farms are already on level ground. Solar energy production is increasing due to cooler temperatures in agricultural areas, limiting overheating of panels.
Solar energy in agriculture
Solar energy can coincide with agriculture and animal husbandry. the National Laboratory of Renewable Energies continued to fund further research efforts in states across the country. With continued research and applications, the future of solar power in agriculture looks rewarding for both energy conservators and farmers.
Photo: NREL researcher Jordan Macknick and Michael Lehan discuss the orientation and spacing of solar panels. The project seeks to improve the environmental compatibility and mutual benefits of solar development with agriculture and indigenous landscapes. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL.