Scientists with Texas A&M AgriLife are actively contributing to the growing body of research focused on agrivoltaics—an innovative technology with the potential to enhance the efficiency and resiliency of sustainable food and agricultural systems while feeding the state’s growing demand for energy.
While Texas leads the nation in energy production, thanks to its diverse reserves of fossil fuels and renewable energy resources, the state’s rapidly expanding population places an ever-growing demand on the electrical power grid. This year, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas reported an unofficial record demand of 85,435 megawatts during the summer heat wave.
Photovoltaic systems, commonly known as solar power or solar panel arrays, play an important role in meeting these growing energy requirements, but the installations are land intensive and can compete with areas also suitable for agricultural production.
That’s where agrivoltaics comes in.
Agrivoltaics enhances land use
As the term implies, agrivoltaics is a dual land-use system combining agriculture in the form of crop and livestock production with solar power arrays.
“As the population of Texas continues to grow, we will see limitations in the amount of land available for the production of food and other agricultural commodities,” said Nuria Gomez-Casanovas, Ph.D., assistant professor in regenerative system ecology in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management.
Gomez-Casanovas said the growing loss of agricultural lands, coupled with expanding energy requirements, has resulted in mounting interest in the potential of agrivoltaic systems.
“Agrivoltaics combines traditional solar arrays with agricultural production between them so we can generate renewable energy while simultaneously producing food,” said Gomez-Casanovas, based at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Vernon. “Just picture typical agricultural farming activities with a solar farm.”
Innovative approach and its unknowns fuel research
Despite the promise agrivoltaics holds for agriculture and energy production, the implementation of the system is relatively new, and Gomez-Casanovas said many questions remain unanswered.
To establish a foundation of existing knowledge and guide future research priorities, Gomez-Casanovas and a team of researchers from across the country collaborated on a recent paper published in Cell Reports Physical Science. The publication, “Knowns, uncertainties and challenges in agrivoltaics to sustainably intensify energy and food production,” is a comprehensive analysis of existing scientific literature to assess the potential of agrivoltaics in enhancing sustainable food and energy production systems.
“We reviewed existing scientific literature to assess how agrivoltaics can provide synergistic benefits across the food-energy-water nexus compared to solar power arrays or agricultural systems alone,” Gomez-Casanovas said. “One of the take-home messages from our analysis is enhanced land productivity through the implementation of agrivoltaics.”
Making land more productive
The idea is to make each acre more profitable for landowners and agricultural operations, said Gomez-Casanovas. Agrivoltaics represents a dual-income stream from food and energy production.
Using a formula known as the land equivalency ratio, the researchers found that planting agricultural crops under solar panel arrays can enhance land productivity by up to 60% compared to crop monocultures or solar panel arrays on the same land area.
Further, the vegetation planted under these solar arrays can offset several undesirable outcomes associated with widespread implementation of solar arrays.
“In a photovoltaic system, vegetation is often removed or kept low under the solar panels, which can result in biodiversity loss associated with land conversion and clearing, as well as an increase in local temperatures due to what is known as the photovoltaic heat island effect,” Gomez-Casanovas said.
Similar to the urban heat island effect, this increase in local temperature is the result of the loss of natural land coverage and an abundance of human-made materials that absorb and retain heat.