Solar Power: the Farmer’s New Crop

Written by FarmRaise Intern, Lily Haynes, on July 8, 2020

Photo by Andreas Gücklhorn on Unsplash

As climatic trends shift, farmers experience volatile growing seasons, unreliable crop yields, and uncertain annual income. More farmers seek a reliable source of income to supplement what they may lose any given year. To meet this need, many farmers are dedicating portions of their land to a new crop with more predictable returns: solar arrays.

One farmer interviewed by the Washington Post noted that even on a bleak winter day in Illinois, his solar panels produce enough energy to power his entire 6,500 acre operation. The producer shares his plans to install additional panels on just 15 of these acres, less than 1% of his operation, and sell the energy produced. He estimates that each year this solar array could yield 3 times as much money as an average harvest from the same acreage.

Coupled with a desire for reliable income, many farmers also want to do their part to mitigate their environmental impact and combat the climatic changes that threaten their harvest. Though climate change mitigation seems like a daunting and theoretical task, investing in renewable energy is a concrete way to contribute with measurable results.

However, producers and consumers alike worry that taking acres of fertile land out of commission for agricultural production could have major consequences for the looming challenge of feeding an ever-increasing global population. Traditional solar arrays are low to the ground, mounted on cement blocks, and can have long-lasting detrimental impacts on the soil. While for some farmers the additional income and positive environmental impacts of these arrays are well worth the sacrifice of a few acres, others are not so sure.

The emerging field of “agrivoltaics” offers a new type of solar array that allows land use for both for crop cultivation and energy production. A recent article details the differences between agrivoltaics and traditional solar arrays. Standing at over 7 ft tall, these new solar panels allow ample room for people and animals to move below them. They are strategically mounted on ten-foot poles without concrete bases to limit soil damage, and are positioned with enough space between them for sunlight to filter through and promote healthy crop growth beneath them. Some farmers report that these innovative arrays may also reduce the amount of irrigation water required to cultivate the plants below them, because the panels create a cool, damp, microclimate for the soil below.

Though initial research suggests a promising future for agrivoltaics, this is still a relatively new idea facing several challenges. Agrivoltaic panels may not be practical for large scale crop cultivation due to the challenge of maneuvering heavy machinery between rows of arrays. Because they’re new, agrivoltaic arrays are also more expensive than traditional solar panels, though a pilot project showed the panels pay for themselves in 8 years, and state and federal grants can significantly shorten that time.

Despite these challenges, agrivoltaics demonstrate the innovative ways that engineers and farmers are working together to produce a solar solution that works for farmers across the world. Renewable energy production on farms is a proven means of substantial and reliable income, as well as a measurable way to contribute to climate change mitigation. Studies show that if solar-sharing systems covered just 1% of the world’s cropland, they could produce enough solar power to meet the world’s annual energy needs.