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How Solar Energy Can Help Boost Biodiversity And Farming

By: Jamie Hailstone

This experimental project is equipped with an “agricultural canopy”, a large shade house equipped with rotating solar panels fixed on cables 5 meters above the fields, with tracking algorithms also developed in order to orient the photovoltaic modules according to climatic conditions and by optimising this tracking algorithm, the manufacturer hopes to be able to increase production between 10% and 20% compared to a conventional photovoltaic power plant.

The farming industry has always been associated with the good stewardship of natural resources, but it is branching out into new areas of sustainability, including renewable energy.

Using cleaner and greener forms has many obvious benefits, including reducing carbon emissions and other types of pollution, but in the case of farming it can also have additional benefits.

In particular, combining both agriculture and solar power generation — often called agrivoltaics — can also help optimize the productivity and efficiency of land use.

A study earlier this summer by the trade body Solar Energy U.K. found many solar farms in Britain are home to many declining species – with most seen on those specifically managed for conservation.

According to the study, which was produced with Lancaster University and consultancies Clarkson & Woods and Wychwood Biodiversity, insects living around ground-mounted photovoltaic panels could also benefit neighbouring agriculture by enhancing the number of available pollinators.

It also noted that solar farms may provide a “significant resource for invertebrates”, due to the vast amount of nectar they can produce.

Another example e is the European independent power producer Alight, which recently introduced sheep to mow the grass at its 7MW solar park in Åhus, Sweden.

The sheep roam freely among the panels, preventing weeds from encroaching, while said panels provide shade for the sheep, who can spend nearly three quarters of their time shielding from the sun.

Alight has sheep-proofed the Åhus solar park to ensure it is a safe environment for both the sheep and the resident shepherd, including education on how to operate in an electrical producing facility for the shepherd.

Alight’s chief operating officer, Warren Campbell told me there is already some research to suggest agrivoltaics provide a “better grazing environment than an open field”.

“In our case, we have a shepherd who keeps an eye on the sheep and it’s just like any other grazing operation,” said Campbell.

And by putting the spacing between, or lifting up the panels, you can actually continue to manage crops on the solar park as well.”

Campbell added whenever Alight looks at a potential site for solar panels, they always study the area for existing biodiversity and how it can be enhanced.

“Farmers are long-term and often multi-generational custodians of the land,” he said.

“They really do care about that land, and they want what is best for it in the long term. They need to be convinced that this is something good both for the land and economically for them.”

In terms of additional benefits to farmers, Tom McCalmont, the CEO of the solar canopy company Paired Power said putting panels on agricultural land has other benefits, such as cooling the ground below, which enables farmers to help retain water in the soil and grow higher value crops.

McCalmont told me in an interview many farmers in the United States have difficult grid connections and can see the benefits of going off-grid, or they are grappling with rising prices for diesel and looking to buy electric tractors.

In both cases, he said installing solar panels have clear benefits.

“We’re rapidly moving towards a world where everything’s electrified,” he added. “The best way to produce energy in that kind of a world is locally to where it will be consumed, so putting solar panels in fields is a great idea for many farmers.”

And David Meyers, founder of Gridtractor said in an interview the opportunity to generate the power onsite, be largely off-grid and use solar-generated electricity to power their vehicles is “really exciting and attractive” for many farmers.

Meyers added most farms have “embraced” solar in California to provide the necessary energy to power irrigation systems, but added more capacity could be added to power electric tractors and other farming equipment.

He told me many farmers are now under pressure from consumers and retailers about the carbon footprint of their crops, and switching to solar and electric vehicles would obviously have a benefit there too.

And he added switching to electric farming vehicles will also help improve air quality in farming areas, which will also help farm workers.

Source: Forbes