The “agrovoltaic” promises to be the future of the field and energy. And it is gaining ground in Spain

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Sometimes it happens that life gives us unexpected partners. It happens to pizza and pineapple, olives and anchovies, or — changing gears — solar energy and agriculture. For a few decades some experts have advocated taking advantage of the possible synergies between the two fields with a concept that they have already coined as “agrovoltaic”. The word does not leave much room for interpretation: it proposes a symbiosis between agriculture or livestock and photovoltaic generation.

It is not new, and certainly not exclusive to Spain, but it has gained strength in recent years, as we strengthen our commitment to sustainable agriculture and renewables themselves.

What is agrovoltaics? The name cannot reflect it more clearly. Agrovoltaic —or agrophotovoltaic— seeks to establish synergies between the agricultural and energy sectors based on one of the greatest and most basic needs that both have in common: land. The idea is to install solar panels on land dedicated to cultivation or livestock in search of a “win-win”.

Although it may sound groundbreaking, the technique is far from new. Adolf Goetzberger and Armin Zastrow raised it in the 1980s, but it didn’t really start to catch on until the last decade. The most common –explains Iberdrola— is that fixed supports are used that raise the plates to a height of five meters, enough to handle tractors under the structures, although there are other options: panels on greenhouses and held by a cable system that allows them to be moved.

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And why, what are its advantages? That: why mix lettuce with photovoltaic panels? The truth, and although it may sound striking at first, is that the combination leaves some interesting advantages. Perhaps the most obvious is greater use of the land, a key value both for agriculture, whose massive extension is destroying hectares of trees in other parts of the globe, and for the energy sector, which is beginning to take its panels to lakes and seas .

A study published in 2019 in the magazine Nature It concluded that dedicating just 1% of arable land to photovoltaic generation would have enough to offset global energy demand. A greater use of renewables, in addition, less consumption of fossil fuels that directly affect climate change, one of the great threats to the agricultural sector. Not to mention that agrovoltaics also facilitate self-consumption with renewable energy on farms and reduce their footprint of polluting emissions.

That is all? No. Or at least that’s what its defenders say. The deployment of plates would help, for example, to limit the evaporation of water in crops, which reduces the water needs of the land while at the same time resulting in the efficiency of the panels themselves. As BBVA details, that same moisture is transmitted to the solar modules, helping them stay cool and achieve greater efficiency. A similar effect is being pursued with some pilot projects spread across India or the USA that propose the closure of ditches with photovoltaic panels.

The panels can also serve as “shades” capable of protecting crops from hail, downpours or even the sun during droughts and heat waves. Not to mention that the model is directly linked to the search for efficiency in the concept of smart farming Y, Iberdrola calculates, the generation of electricity increases the value of the land itself by more than 30%. However, the main advantage remains that of a more efficient and shared use of land.

Are they all advantages? Not again. Advocates of agrivoltaics highlight how solar panels can protect crops from hail or rain, among other inclement weather, but the other side of the same coin is that they cast a shadow that can affect their productivity. Lack of light and crops, you know, do not always pair well.

The problem, of course, is not insurmountable. There are agrovoltaic models that use flexible installations, capable of moving their modules. Another option is to incorporate monitoring software capable of orienting the panels or, once the technique is sufficiently refined, to resort to materials for semi-transparent photovoltaic cells on which the industry is already working. Even in that case, it would remain, yes, another of its great handicaps: the landscape impact of the facilities.

And beyond the paper? Agrovoltaics has been on the table long enough for it not to be limited to a simple theoretical approach. It is not a mainstream model, but there are a few – and good examples – of how it works in practice. Agrovoltaic plants can be found in Europe —here is an example in Paderborn, Germany—, Mali, Gambia, Chile, USA or Chinese. In Japan, I needed a year ago DWfarmers already exceed 2,000 agrovoltaic systems.

In Spain we also have some samples. Just a few days ago, Repsol announced an alliance with Powerfultree to explore precisely projects with this type of technology. The agreement will start with a pilot project in a wine estate of the San Gabriel School of Oenology, in Aranda de Duero. Another Spanish initiative is that of the augustus solar plantin Merida.

UK has a plan to supply energy to farmers: semi-transparent solar panels on the walls of greenhouses

A challenge only for technicians? The answer, again, is no. Beyond the challenge that it may pose for experts in renewable energies or the farmers themselves, agrivoltaics also requires the attention of the authorities. In mid-2021 in France announced the creation of France Agrivoltaisme precisely for its promotion and Germany has its own regulations, which detail the characteristics and yields that a project must meet in order to receive the “agrovoltaic” label. Our other neighbor, Portugal, has also launched aid.

The truth is that over the decades steps have been taken in other European countries. It is the case of Italy, which have already defined the rules of agrivoltaics, or France, where Emmanuel Macron gave it “presidential recognition”. In Spain, at least in April, the Association of Renewable Energy Companies (APPA) pointed out that work was being done on its development. That doesn’t take away points out PV Magazinethat there continue to be companies that advertise as agrovoltaic projects in which the weeds are not directly cleared under the plates or sheep are used to do so.

Images | AgriSolar Clearinghouse (Flickr)

Sometimes it happens that life gives us unexpected partners. It happens to pizza and pineapple, olives and anchovies, or —…

Sometimes it happens that life gives us unexpected partners. It happens to pizza and pineapple, olives and anchovies, or —…

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