(photo: Ben Turner, Hoosier Energy)
A January 2020 article from Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) discusses how solar panels have been making a positive impact on farmland throughout the country. On some land, solar panels are the only feature and create a steady stream of income for farmers hedging against a bad year for crops. This can be especially important for fields where crops don’t grow well in the first place. A solar project means that field yields income and can even be restored as it lies fallow. In other places, solar panels have native plants grown between them. These plants improve water and soil quality, and raise the pollinator population in an area. Those pollinators will have a positive effect on nearby crops.
Another dual-use arrangement involves grazing. Fields with solar panels have plenty of space for animals like sheep to eat off the land. A typical arrangement means the farmer has a free place for their sheep to graze, while the energy company doesn’t have to pay to have the field mowed.
Finally, certain crops can actually be grown underneath solar panels. A technique known as agrivoltaics shows both crops and solar panels benefit from this strategy. The University of Arizona has had success growing tomatoes, chard, kale, cabbage and onions in the middle of the desert. Crops require less water because they grow in the shade of the panels. In turn, evaporation off the plants cools the back of the solar panels, increasing their efficiency in hot weather.
While these rural land arrangements are still in their infancy, they anticipate agreements on a much larger scale in the future. According to the RMI article, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates solar will take up 3 million acres by 2030, up from 258,000 acres today, an elevenfold increase in just ten years.
Read the RMI article here.
Read more about the University of Arizona’s agrivoltaics program here.