The last crop found on the farm? Solar panels.
The approach could be a boon for energy production and agricultural production. Less direct sunlight helps keep plants cooler during the day, allowing them to retain more moisture and therefore require less watering. Having plants under the solar panels also reduces the amount of heat reflected from the ground, which keeps the panels cooler and makes them more efficient. Farm workers tending to crops also benefit from cooler temperatures, as do grazing animals.
Widespread adoption of the practice could help reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the United States by 330,000 tons per year and create more than 100,000 rural jobs without greatly affecting crop yields. A 2019 study in the journal Scientific Reports predicted that global energy needs could be met by solar panels if less than 1% of cropland was converted to agrivoltaic systems.
Combining agriculture and power generation has multiple benefits, says Joshua Pearce, a solar energy expert at Western University in London, Ontario. “Solar power and increased land use efficiency is worth the money, and thus increases revenue for a given acre for the farmer,” he says. “The local community also benefits from the protection of access to fresh food and renewable energy.”
But researchers are still trying to find the best ways to set up agrivoltaic systems. One variable is height: at Jack’s Solar Garden, for example, scientists are experimenting with raised panels six feet or eight feet off the ground. There’s also the question of what types of plants respond best to the extra shade from solar panels.