Agriculture is one of the key pillars of society. Today, however, farmers are frequently facing a climate crisis. A key threat to the agricultural industry is drought & climate change, which are linked directly to each other. For the agriculture sector to survive, a permanent solution like Agrivoltaics must be implemented.
Agrivoltaics, or solar sharing, is the combination of solar panels & plants on farmland. It combines crops with photovoltaic panels installed at a height, i.e., high enough for farm equipment to pass underneath. Traditionally, these systems use ground-mounted solar arrays that grow crops beneath or between the rows of solar panels. In addition, an agrivoltaic system provides additional energy production capacity, coupled with enhancing crop yield, water consumption, & product quality. Further, it also meets some significant challenges in the context of scarcity.
Agrivoltaic systems are gaining immense attention worldwide, owing to their several benefits for farmers. As a result, a research study has cited around 38% CAGR for the Global Agrivoltaic Market during 2022-27. Moreover, adopting Agrivoltaics to power farms, and pairing solar panels with farmlands, will allow farmers to save money, increase productivity, and utilize a clean, renewable energy source. Furthermore, this new farming method is expected to flourish in the coming years due to its incredible benefits & positive impacts.
Key Benefits of Agrivoltaic Systems
The agricultural industry & the energy sector are vulnerable to climate changes, reduced precipitation, increased CO2, and rising air temperatures. Agriculture is being affected by water scarcity issues & extreme weather events that are impacting energy systems worldwide by reducing the reliability of energy production & generation. Hence, the global energy system's resilience is of utmost importance. The use of wind energy & drought-proof photovoltaic systems can satisfy sustainability & resilience concerns. Nevertheless, studies of ground-mounted SPV installations with gravel ground cover have shown higher temperatures near solar arrays and lower temperatures under agrivoltaic systems compared to open fields. Traditionally, gravel is used as a ground cover for SPV installations. Hence, agrivoltaic systems can be countered against heat feedback by strategically planting vegetation in place of gravel.
Despite varying effects resulting from crop type, researchers found that agrivoltaic systems have significant implications for food production, water conservation/water harvesting, and renewable energy production. In addition, the decrease in direct sunlight exposure of SPV panels caused cooler air temperatures during the day & higher temperatures at night, allowing plants covered with solar panels to retain more moisture than open-sky crops.
As consumers are becoming more mindful of the environmental issues, along with the growing demand for the better management of available resources, new methods of traceability & control have emerged. The future of farming, i.e., Agriculture 4.0, would involve the use of devices like robots, moisture & temperature sensors, aerial images, GPS, etc., and technologies like Big Data, the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence, etc. It would allow farms to be more efficient, profitable, & environmentally friendly. Solar panels mounted on the ground are substantially warmer during the day than those mounted with plants. Compared to the traditional panel array, agrivoltaic SPV panels were about 3-6°C cooler during daytime hours, thereby allowing for better performance. By installing SPV arrays near farms, farmers could increase crop yields, reduce water losses, and improve the efficiency of SPV arrays & water harvesting. By adopting such synergistic options, more resilient food production & energy-generation systems can be built.
Potential Challenges associated with the use of Agrivoltaics
With the widespread adoption of Agrivoltaics, there are some challenges too. If we further elaborate, some crops are unsuitable for the shade of PV panels & other obstacles to adoption. Additionally, farmers' primary concerns are related to long-term land productivity & planning, uncertainty in the market, lack of documented benefits, and compatibility with their current farming practices. As we all know, in any business, returns & risks must be carefully balanced, and the idea of Agrivoltaics is new & unfamiliar to many farmers.
In addition, the adoption of agrivoltaic systems will possibly require farmers to change their farming practices, and the purchase of new equipment to maneuver around photovoltaic arrays would result in increased investments & learning curves for them. Besides, other barriers include less or no technical knowledge of best practices for adoption and lack of government incentives.
Regardless, running photovoltaic plants presents several operational & maintenance challenges. If solar cells are not maintained adequately, plants growing into them can cause shorts & system failures. Furthermore, as vegetation increases, so do wildlife & animals, including squirrels & mice, which can chew through wires. Therefore, repairing such issues can cost time & money, and outages could affect the owners of the systems.
What’s the impact of Agrivoltaics on the environment?
This technology has several shortcomings, including the removal of farmland's topsoil and the mounting of panels on concrete pads. These limitations affect the amount of food that can be produced. The volume of vegetables, such as peppers, broccoli, and Swiss chard, can only be produced at about 60% of their potential under full sunlight. In addition, solar panels only offer a small amount of power generation per acre, and they are also expensive. Nonetheless, farmers & solar energy producers would have to pay for themselves in approximately eight years & benefit from their combined efforts in the long term.
The adoption of agricultural photovoltaics could result in stronger, cleaner, and more resilient local communities. The expansion of Agrivoltaics will create local, high-paying jobs, as solar developers & installers will be required for construction projects. As a result, the solar industry will also receive a boost, which, in turn, could eventually result in a decrease in solar prices. Moreover, it is also likely that the development & adoption of electric farming equipment might get influenced by agrivoltaic systems. At present, the majority of farm equipment runs on combustion engines. Nevertheless, once farmers realize how much solar energy they can produce, they might switch to electric vehicles in the future.
Monocrystalline PV Cells: The More Popular Choice
Due to the high efficiency & durability, wider lifespan, & compact design of monocrystalline solar panels, they are the popular choice and are preferred over polycrystalline solar panels. Since they comprise a single crystal, there is more room for electrons to move when they generate electricity. As a result, their efficiency increases significantly.
Asia-Pacific Significantly Adopting Agrivoltaic Practices
Of all regions globally, Asia-Pacific has shown a rapid shift toward using renewable energy sources across various countries and contributed significantly to the market growth. As a result of favorable policies, along with the growing need to broaden domestic energy consumption to solve the problem of overcapacity in China's photovoltaic industry, the Agrivoltaic market has been rapidly expanding across the region. Over the last four years, China, the world's largest manufacturer and supplier of photovoltaics, has installed 4 gigawatts of Agrivoltaic capacity. Consequently, implementing Agrivoltaics in China would resolve these overcapacity issues while encouraging the use of modern agriculture methods.
Farming with Agrivoltaics can be more affordable & environmentally sustainable, and solar farms can be installed close to population centers & electricity users without compromising prime farming land. Additionally, global investments in solar power generation are rising rapidly. Moreover, Agrivoltaics is well-suited to market gardening, but perhaps less so for arable crops. Besides reducing maintenance issues associated with solar panels that are closer together, the agrivoltaic system also uses the land for productive agriculture. Although Agrivoltaics has both advantages & disadvantages for farmers, perhaps the greater demand among farmers, coupled with government incentives, would make this renewable technology more popular worldwide, which, in turn, would tremendously boost the Global Agrivoltaics Market in the coming years.