League of Women Voters

Can agrivoltaics save family farms, local land?


Our climate team’s leading voice, John Smilie, has been posting on social media about agrivoltaics, and if you’ve never heard the term, you can figure out its part science, part agriculture. If you’re curious or nerdy enough, you might fall into a research rabbit hole to find out what it is and why it matters.

The term photovoltaics just means power from light. And yes, photovoltaics is jargon for solar panels, and agrivoltaics is a kind of portmanteau, a blend of voltaics and agriculture, to suggest that large scale solar farming is an increasingly an attractive to way to optimize yields, which could help smaller farm operations survive the takeovers of agribusiness.

These days, a number of people turn more to YouTube to bypass the jargon the jargon of newspaper and journal articles. YouTube can be helpful, but it’s critical to remember that it’s just a library of videos from anyone who adds their content, many of which are not subjected to fact-checking and the rigor of accuracy that science journals and reputable periodicals must pass. Furthermore, Google and search engines work on algorithms that can provide long lists of videos and websites that just repackage the same misinformation and utilize search engine optimization techniques to attract attention.

For this reason, Smilie helped to fact-check one particularly insightful video — Matt Ferrell’s “Solar Panels Plus Farming Agrivoltaics Explained.” Because Ferrell self-publishes via YouTube without an editorial board and a team of fact checkers, he’s an independent reporter. He does cite all his sources posted with the transcript of his video linked in the notes of his video and his website includes his personal ethics statement, which is promising.

Smilie has been presenting his research across Indiana and helping foot the bill to install solar for local non-profits — the Boys & Girls Club, the Youth Services Bureau, and now the Free Clinic. His goal is to educate about solar and mitigate climate change.

“It’s real. It’s bad. It’s us. There’s hope,” Smilie said.

Ferrell too leads with hope.

“We have a world population expected to grow by 1.2 billion people within 15 years, coupled with a growing demand for meat, eggs and dairy, which soak up over 70% of fresh water for crops, plus electricity demand that’s growing even faster than population growth … what are we supposed to do about all of that? Well, we can combine two of my favorite things: technology and food.” This video, one of many on promising new technologies, explains the types of land usage that are helping small farmers save their land from corporate takeovers.

Ferrell defines dual-use land, where small farm animals help with the upkeep and maximizations of large scale solar installations. It’s the kind of usage that Hoosier energy employed in 2021 when it partnered with sheep farmers in Columbus. WTHR reported the sheep graze down growth beneath the panels and thrive in the shade. Ferrell explains that chickens and geese are also excellent small animals to co-farm with solar.

Until recently crop farming around solar farming was technically alternating use land. Farmers could only plant between the rows, losing ground under the panels, to allow the sun to reach the plants. Now European nations have begun farming with vertically mounted bifacial modules solar panels. Because they’re vertically mounted, the panels help reduce wind erosion in vulnerable areas. Furthermore, in Next2Sun AG’s pilot project in Germany, the bifacial vertical solar panels allowed for large farm equipment to cultivate hay between rows, boosting yields by 50% because they improved moisture retention in the soil. Smilie imagines that this promising innovation could transform the plight of Kansas wheat farmers, where farmers compete for water and rely on irrigation. Another benefit of bifacial panels? They produce more power at morning and evening, when we need it, making them complementary to ordinary tilt solar panels that maximize production at noon.

Another solution is putting panels on stilts, which Purdue University has done in cornfields of Northwest Indiana. Because they’re high enough to let equipment to move beneath, the land can generate profit two ways.

The University of Arizona reported a study on growing cherry tomatoes and pepper in arid land. The solar panels cool the land beneath in addition to preserving moisture, which improves water usage and yields in Arizona and other arid areas.

In his video and linked article, Ferrell breaks down how much land might not be used with the different configurations and how yields are affected depending on the type of crop grown — sun-hungry versus shade-loving — under solar panels. Shade loving plants like raspberries, spinach, lettuce, potatoes and tomatoes can thrive. Yields for sun loving crops vary based on shifts in climate. In ‘wet and cold’ years, German experimenters saw 25% lower yields in agrivoltaic fields, but in “dry and hot” years, yields were greater than non-solar fields. Researchers believe this holds promise for hot, arid regions of the world.

After Ferrell provides all this positive evidence for voltaics, he asks, “So what’s keeping us from rolling out this dual-purpose, game-changing system at a massive scale? What’s the catch? Energy production is a different ball game from agriculture, which can slow down farmers from embracing the technology. But the actual obstacles are sadly … mundane … and some frustrating.”

Ferrell addresses the not-in-my-backyard effect, bureaucracy and the market concerns. He graciously speaks to crowds of people who resist the change, acknowledging that building local support is to ensure that the systems should be run by and be profitable for local farms, local energy cooperatives like CEL&Ps solar efforts and regional investors. Empowering the local people and communicating how it profits them are two solutions in Ferrell’s opinion.

Smilie notes that “we already use our fields for energy production — nearly 40 million acres of corn, and another 28-30 million acres for soy biodiesel. It’s insane. You get minimum 30 times more gross energy per acre with solar (and like 100 times-plus net energy). Put that into an EV with three times efficiency, you get 90 times the vehicle miles traveled with less engine wear and tear and no air pollution or fertilizer runoff.”

Finally, for those farms that have implemented solar farming in conjunction with their operations, it’s been a life-saver. Byron Kominek, a hay farmer with only 24 acres in Colorado, adding solar saved his farm. A Wisconson farmer struggling to keep his dairy farm alive decided to share 500 acres because he wanted to preserve family land. In the decades since Nixon’s Agriculture Secretary Earl Butts fostered a shift to corporate farming, causing family farms to rapidly disappear, agrivoltaics is rescuing struggling farmers. “Farmers have what solar energy companies need: land,” Wisconsin Public Radio reported. In turn, communities installing solar farms have realized they can benefit from farmers. From beekeeping to potatoes, broccoli, kale, herbs and tomatillos, Minnesota solar installations are better utilizing land to serve the people.


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