Agrivoltaics: Integrating solar panels and crops for sustainable food and energy production

A new project at the University of Alberta is working towards the goal of growing greens in one’s backyard under a solar panel, and using the same energy to juice them in a blender. This innovative practice, known as agrivoltaics, involves integrating solar panels with crops to simultaneously use land for both food and energy production.

The project involves measuring how different solar panels affect both plant growth and the electrical output of the panels by growing spinach under them. This practice has the potential to address pressing sustainability issues such as the energy transition to renewable sources, feeding the world, addressing climate action, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and making more efficient use of water. Agrivoltaics can be implemented both in rural and urban agriculture by utilizing backyards and city green spaces. By experiencing what it’s like to produce both food and electricity, people can connect to the idea of sustainability as a way of life and develop a sense of caring about where their food and energy are coming from. While agrivoltaics alone cannot source all our food and energy needs, it makes a valuable contribution towards sustainable living.

Win-win for plants and solar panels

According to Camila Quiroz, the research intern running the experiment, the U of A pilot project is just the first step in exploring the potential benefits of agrivoltaics. She emphasizes that more knowledge in this field will be necessary in the near future to continue living sustainably.

During the 25-day project, conducted in a growth chamber, the researchers compared the growth of spinach plants under three different conditions: with no solar panel, shaded by a thin panel, or shaded by a thick panel. They also measured how much electricity each type of panel produced.

Agrivoltaics has benefits for both the plants and the panels, Quiroz notes. Solar panels have higher output with lower temperatures, so placing plants under the panels creates a cooling effect that helps the panels be more efficient. Furthermore, leafy plants like spinach and lettuce, along with berries, corn, onions, tomatoes, and grapes, need shade to thrive, which the solar panels in this experiment provide.

Early results show promise

The researchers noted promising results from the month-long experiment. Under the solar panels, spinach plants consumed up to 17 percent less water, and although their growth was slower than without the panels, their overall health remained high as they approached harvest weight.

“It demonstrates that using agrivoltaics does not harm plant health,” notes the team.

The solar panels also generated a power output of 10 watts, sufficient to power devices such as mobile phones, tablets, LED lamps, or small appliances.

“This project is a step forward in demonstrating that as we harness solar energy for use in our homes, we can also grow nutritious food simultaneously,” says Hernandez Ramirez.

Once the project data is fully analyzed, the results will be published in a scientific paper, and Quiroz plans to create a guide for the public “so that people can begin to practice some of these things.”

Hernandez Ramirez also hopes to share the guide with the City of Edmonton as a useful example of how agrivoltaics could be optimized to the city’s weather conditions.

The next steps are to secure research funding to further test agrivoltaics with other crops, such as berries and vegetables, explore different angles and arrangements of solar panels, and test them under outdoor conditions like rain, he adds.

“Agrivoltaics is a completely new area of research and an option we want to continue exploring and finding ways to implement because it benefits society, as well as the food and farming industries.”

Source: University of Alberta

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