Sounds too good to be true? Not according to researchers from Oregon State University (OSU), who had conducted the study behind the headline using a method called “agrivoltaics” or “agrophotovoltaics” – developed by Adolf Goetzberger and Armin Zastrow back in 1981 – which refers to the co-development of the same area of land for both solar photovoltaic power and agriculture.
“There’s an old adage that agriculture can overproduce anything,” said Associate Professor Chad Higgins of the OSU. “That’s what we found in electricity, too. It turns out that 8,000 years ago, farmers found the best places to harvest solar energy on Earth.”
The “agrovoltaic” technique, outlined in a study published in the International Journal of Solar Energy by Goetzberger and Zastrow, was found to slightly reduce crop yields due to solar panels – installed about 2 metres above the plants – blocking the sun, but eventually result in net benefits both in terms of agricultural productivity and the generation of solar power.
One notable example is the Cochin International Airport, located in the Indian state of Kerala, which has been powered entirely by solar since 2015 while simultaneously producing around 60 tonnes of vegetables per year – all thanks to its 29-megawatt array developed in the “agrivoltaic” fashion.
In the paper, out in the journal Scientific Reports since last week, Professor Higgins and his colleagues first looked into power production data from Tesla, which operates solar arrays on agricultural lands owned by the OSU, and compared it with data from microclimate research stations. Results showed that, not unlike “people and the weather”, solar panels are “happier when it’s cool and breezy”.
Next, the researchers compared the above results with data on global energy demands, provided by the World Bank, finding that, at 28 watts of energy generated per square meter as a median average, all it would take to power the entire world would be to cover just 1% of the cropland with solar panels.
Impressive as that is, some might say it‘s nothing more than a pipe dream. And yet, with climate conditions plummeting year after year despite our best efforts, ambitious thinking might not bee that far off the mark.