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Sheep and solar panels

Solar energy and agriculture combo could help mitigate climate change

Image credit: Oregon State University

New research suggests that co-developing land for both solar power and agriculture, known as agrivoltaics, could provide up to 20 per cent of the total electricity generation of the US with an investment of less than one per cent of the country’s annual budget.

According to the researchers at Oregon State University, a wide-scale installation of agrivoltaic systems could lead to an annual reduction of 330,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions in the US – the equivalent of 75,000 cars off the road per year – and the creation of more than 100,000 jobs in rural communities, all while minimally impacting crop yield.

“Agrivoltaics provide a rare chance for true synergy: more food, more energy, lower water demand, lower carbon emissions and more prosperous rural communities,” said Chad Higgins, an associate professor in Oregon State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

Higgins added that agrivoltaics also align with the goals of the 'Green New Deal', a package of federal legislation that seeks to address climate change and economic inequalities. 

“Rural America, agriculture in particular, can be the solution to many of our concerns, whether it be renewable energy, mitigating climate change impacts, sustainable food or good water resource management,” he said, adding that such a connection is untapped mostly due to insufficient investment in such communities.

Higgins explained: “What we propose in this study is all possible. It’s technically possible. It’s politically possible. And it would make money after the initial investment. That’s the takeaway – that we should take a hard look at agriculture as a solution to problems rather than a cause of problems.”

The analysis outlined in the study prepares Higgins for the next phase of his agrivoltaics research, which includes the installation of a fully functional solar farm. The farm was designed to prioritise agricultural activities on five acres of Oregon State’s North Willamette Research and Extension Station in Aurora, Oregon, 20 miles south of Portland.

According to the researchers, the next phase aims to demonstrate to the agricultural community and potential future funders how the findings can be applied in real-world agricultural systems to encourage early adoption. The ground is expected to be broken in May 2021 with production expected to start in 2022.

In the study, Higgins and co-author Kyle Proctor, a doctoral student in his lab, found that an area about the size of Maryland would be needed for agrivoltaics to meet 20 per cent of US electricity generation. This is around 13,000 square miles; approximately one per cent of current US farmland.

The cost of the agrivoltaic arrays would be $1.12tn (£820bn) over a 35-year project life, but the researchers believe that the private sector would invest in the bulk of the construction costs with the federal government contributing with rebates and other incentives.

Using money generated from the electricity which the arrays produce, the researchers estimated it would take about 17 years to pay back the $1.12bn. After the projected 35-year lifespan of the project, the researchers predict the arrays would produce $35.7bn (£26bn) in revenue.

Furthermore, the researchers said that the installation of the arrays would create the equivalent of 117,000 jobs lasting 20 years, with 40 per cent being sustainable positions for operating and maintaining the array. 

Higgins’ initial research focused on the impact solar arrays had on the crops planted around them. That research, along with work by other scientists, has shown that crop yield is dependent on the type of crop, but in the end, when the value of the electricity generated by the solar panels is included, there is an economic net benefit from the agrivoltaic systems.

Looking forward, Higgins believes the wide-scale installation of agrivoltaic systems opens the door for other technologies. This surplus energy generated by the solar arrays could be used to power electric tractors or to generate fertiliser on a farm.

Higgins added that inexpensive sensors could be installed on the solar panel platforms to support artificial intelligence-based decisions to improve agricultural productivity: “Once we have the infrastructure, once we have energy, we are ready to tackle so many more big problems”.

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