A Different Type of Solar Farm: How Solar Agriculture is Helping the Modern Farming Industry
- Technological advancements are just as welcomed by farmers as they are shunned. This is because while they can improve the efficiency of tasks, they can also make labour-intensive jobs obsolete for workers, reducing employment opportunities within the industry.
- Solar agriculture makes energy use more efficient and directly enhances farming capabilities. It can also offset energy bills, breathe new life into existing operations, and reduce fossil fuel dependence, making the farming industry more eco-friendly.
- While there are many positives in combining the solar and agriculture industries, there are some challenges. For example, finding the best location for a solar array on farmland can be tricky as the electricity infrastructure in regional areas often needs upgrades to support the renewable transition.
- Farmers need to get their heads around advancing technology to find a way to use it to boost profits. Otherwise, they risk automated farming having dire consequences for their rural livelihoods.
It is well known that the life of a farmer is one of hard work and countless challenges. However, modern farmers and the industry as a whole are facing more challenges than ever before – from changes in agricultural policies to the impact of global warming. These challenges are complex and diverse, and the realities of technological advancement and globalization have brought on additional difficulties.
There are, however, some emerging technologies that can help support the farming industry for generations to come. One such advancement is solar energy systems, which can help farmers not only sustain but thrive. This article will unearth how solar agriculture supports the modern farming industry.
The Need For Solar Agriculture
Technological developments are, therefore, just as welcomed as they are shunned by farmers.
Agricultural technological advancements are a double-edged sword. On one end, technological advancements can make farming more efficient, but on the other, they can lead to job obsolescence. For example, the Industrial Revolution improved farming efficiency by accelerating the harvesting process, but it also brought about the downfall of the previous economic model. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, the loss of jobs due to farming innovation has been a recurring phenomenon worldwide. Technological developments are, therefore, just as welcomed as they are shunned by farmers.
The agricultural export market has also significantly changed over the decades. Historically, trading agricultural goods was a much more complex process than it is today. As a result of certain advancements, the global exchange of agricultural goods is now completed with unprecedented ease and speed, putting new pressures on farmers.
Of course, many have benefited from developments in trade and technology. Large farms that produce sustainable, high-quality agricultural goods are slowly dominating the export market. Consequently, small-scale farmers may find that the imported produce has saturated their local market with the same products – making it difficult to maintain a healthy profit margin year in and year out.
The trends above are not only problematic for the farmers but all of us. The world is expected to become increasingly unstable in the coming years due to climate change. With this in mind, almost every nation will encounter new pressures to bring about food security. As a result, ensuring the survival of the farming industry is at the top of the global agenda. For this reason, solar power could be an essential element as the farming industry develops.
Solar Energy Supporting Agriculture
Research shows that solar agriculture increased farm productivity by 160% compared to farming operations that are not dual-use across the same period.
Solar agriculture, also known as agrophotovoltaics (APV) and dual-use farming, uses solar panels to generate electricity, making energy use more efficient and directly enhancing farming capabilities. For farmers with small plots of land – such as those commonly seen in France – solar agriculture can offset energy bills, breathe new life into existing operations, and reduce the use of fossil fuels.
The Fraunhofer Institute conducted a study that involved monitoring experimental operations within Germany’s Lake Constance region. Research shows that solar agriculture increased farm productivity by 160% compared to operations that are not dual-use across the same period.
Solar agriculture is still very young, as is the solar industry as a whole. However, there are already many solar agriculture installations in full operation across the globe and numerous trial projects in Europe, the USA, and beyond. The variety of crops that can grow and thrive underneath solar canopies is impressive. Crops such as wheat, beans, potatoes, kale, swiss chard and even tomatoes have grown successfully under solar installations.
Crops can grow effectively under solar setups, and farmers can enjoy an extended growing season due to the optimal conditions that dual land use offers. The panels provide additional warmth in winter and cooler climates in summer. A study conducted in the Maharashtra region in India found crop yields of up to 40% higher due to the reduced evaporation rate and extra shading that solar system installations provided.
Challenges of Agricultural Land
Technological advancements could one day see solar agriculture – which allows solar arrays and agriculture to co-exist – benefitting both the energy and agriculture industries.
While there are many positives to combining the solar and agriculture industries, there are some challenges. Environmental groups generally support solar developments – as long as they do not encroach on high-value agricultural land. In order to facilitate solar generation on farmland – large-scale projects that supply power to the grid – local authorities tend to require a formal planning and approval process to avoid unintended consequences. On the other hand, smaller solar installations on farms for private use don’t usually need any planning permission as they pose little risk of significant environmental impact.
The ability to combine solar installations with existing agriculture is somewhat revolutionary. Technological advancements could one day see solar agriculture – which allows solar arrays and agriculture to co-exist – benefitting both the energy and agriculture industries. There are already many solar developments, primarily private ones, where sheep roam freely amongst the solar panels. As long as all the wiring is out of reach, sheep are perfect for keeping the grass down between panels. Cattle, however, are too big and risk damaging solar panels.
That said, locating a solar array on farmland can be tricky as the electricity infrastructure in regional areas tends to require upgrades to support the renewable transition. Incorporating agricultural activities into solar farming also brings along the complexities of a solar project’s design, operations, and management. There is a need for an improved understanding of solar agriculture cost implications and additional government support for cross-disciplinary projects.
The cost of solar systems as a whole has declined steadily over the years and continues to drop. However, the reality is solar agriculture installations remain expensive – even more so if any damage occurs. While strengthening and safeguards are put in place to prevent the likelihood of damage, even the smallest amount of damage can become rather costly. It can also be difficult to avoid accidents – especially if a farmer operates heavy machinery around the solar installation. One wrong turn could potentially ruin the whole solar setup.
For many farmers, the solution to this problem is one of placement. Separating the solar installation from other areas used for farming activity may result in less land available for the benefits of solar agriculture; however, it provides added security as the solar equipment is less likely to be damaged. This setup also means prime farmland is reserved exclusively for farming, with ancillary land – where the soil is not as nutrient-rich – developed for solar installations. Such arrangements can ensure existing farming activities are not disrupted.
Agriculture Adjusting to Other Emerging Technologies
Farmers will need to find a way to use technology to boost profits, or else they may risk finding their profits mastered by technological advancements.
In recognizing the possibilities that solar power can bring to the farming industry, we cannot ignore the other technologies stepping onto the scene cannot be ignored. Although Artificial Intelligence (AI) in agriculture is not yet advanced enough to replace the need for human workers on the farm, there are now some highly sophisticated robots in production. AI could one day replace human workers in many agricultural jobs, such as pickers and other manual labour tasks. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) such as drones are already in operation across many modern farms. Their ability to carry out a greater variety of tasks will likely only increase in the future. It is clear that technology is at the core of the farming industry’s future. Farmers will need to find a way to use technology to boost profits, or else they may risk automated farming having dire consequences for their rural livelihoods.
The farming industry will continue to face new developments that may threaten its survival. This is not only due to technological advancements but also the impact of climate change. Therefore, governments must continue to recognize that additional support is required in their respective agricultural sectors. Solar energy offers enormous potential and supports the need for greater food security. Of course, solar agriculture alone may not solve all modern farming industry problems, but it can certainly be a powerful tool in helping build a more sustainable future.
Can a solar farm be built on agricultural land?
Solar panels can be installed on marginal agricultural land and provide an alternative source of income for the farm. However, farmers looking to convert agricultural farmland need to know that planning permission may come with restrictions. For example, authorization to turn highly fertile fields into solar farms is rarely granted. Planning permission is more likely to be approved for grazing or low-yield agricultural land.
What are the benefits of using solar energy for agriculture?
There are many benefits of solar energy in agriculture. It can help save money, increase self-reliance and reduce pollution. It can also boost brand image by promoting a green message, helping products stand out from the competition.
How is solar energy used in agriculture?
Solar energy has enormous potential for solar irrigation and can pump water for crops and livestock. In addition, if buildings are designed or renovated to trap heat during the day, this heat can then be used to dry crops and warm homes, livestock buildings and greenhouses.
Do solar farms damage the soil?
Research has indicated that only a minute amount of aluminum is released from solar systems into the soil. There is no indication that a trace amount of aluminum has any negative impact on the earth. Solar systems are considered safe to have around crops and are also a great way to help prevent land degradation while making good use of overworked fields.
Is agricultural land the best place for solar arrays?
A study conducted by Oregon State University found that agricultural land is the best place for solar arrays. Farmland is reportedly the most effective area to place solar farms. In fact, if just 1% of agricultural land was used for solar farms, it would meet human electricity demands.