The benefits aren’t just one-sided in this symbiotic relationship. Solar panels directly benefit from their relationship with the plants, too. This is where some real agrivoltaic magic (science) happens.
In the hottest and most life-sucking places on Earth, like the Mojave Desert, solar panels don’t perform well (but let’s be honest, we don’t perform well in heat that exceeds 120 degrees Fahrenheit [48.8 degrees Celsius] either).
When solar panels are positioned in deserts, they hold on to the heat they absorb from the barren ground below, creating a heat island effect that makes the surrounding area a lot hotter.
But plant vegetables in the ground below the panels and the plants transpire (sweat) water from their leaves, cooling the surrounding air and, ipso facto, keep the panels cooler. The panels can perform better at cooler temperatures, turning more sunlight into electricity! Pretty cool, right?
Studies at Oregon State University found that solar panels like these with crops planted beneath were able to generate 10 percent more electricity.
Farmers or livestock owners also reap the benefits. Unfortunately, farmers have taken a financial hit in recent years. In 2020, there was a 23 percent increase in U.S. farm bankruptcies from the previous year. As older farmers hand over operations to children or another family member, some aren’t committed to the risky idea of long-term farming as a career.
Still, AV offers a new path forward, says Ryan Lloyd, director of asset acquisition at DSD Renewables. “Many farming families are starting to get a little bit excited because it’s like, well, we can still farm and have a renewable energy source on our land,” he says. “They’re starting to see the best of both worlds.”
Agrivoltaics also offers farmers the potential for higher yields and creates an additional revenue stream by allowing them to lease their land to solar developers.
Current projects in the northeastern U.S. are experimenting with AV systems on sheep grazing land. “It might help lower costs for mowing and some of the operation and maintenance costs,” Dritenbas says. “We fit into what the farmers are trying to do and try to coexist as best we can.”
Sheep farmers can diversify their income, solar panel operators don’t have to worry about mowing and sheep can eat until their heart’s content.