Adam Amengual/The New York Times

Agrivoltaics is the use of land for both agriculture and solar photovoltaic energy generation

April 12, 2023

Growing Crops in the Shade: Cornell Researchers Advance Efficiency in Agrivoltaic Farming

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A recently-published University research paper, “The potential for agrivoltaics to enhance solar farm cooling,” points to avenues for greater efficiency in agrivoltaic systems, as well as application in diverse landscapes. The research, conducted by Henry Williams grad, Khaled Hashad grad, Haomiao Wang grad and Prof. Max Zhang, mechanical and aerospace engineering, aims to increase solar efficiency through tools based in physical engineering, thereby increasing the potential for energy production in agricultural settings.

Agrivolatic systems are landscapes that combine solar infrastructure, such as solar panels, with agricultural crops — effectively doubling land use application and thereby meeting needs in sustainable energy and food security. 

The use of a landscape for both agricultural and energy shareholding has implications for sustainable development under increasing climate and food concerns. 

“At present, most solar photovoltaic projects in agricultural regions are sited on agricultural land, creating conflict between food and energy production,” Williams said. “Combining these two land uses through agrivoltaic can alleviate some of these issues, but there is a need for robust modeling capabilities to demonstrate the physical implications of co-locating agriculture and solar PV.” 

Climate change and rising population will require improvements in both sustainable infrastructure and food production. Agrivoltaic systems will become an increasingly important tool in finding sustainable solutions to these challenges. 

As a result, the research group utilized physics and engineering to create a tool that could model for coefficient agricultural and solar PV production through agrivotaics. 

“We develop a solar farm microclimate model to demonstrate how passive cooling from vegetation and taller panel heights can lead to increased efficiency for solar panels in agrivoltaic systems,” Williams said.

In creating this model, the researchers determined viable ways to construct solar panels that would coexist with crop plants through assorted engineering techniques. For example, they considered photo-activity from reflective ground light, as well as rates of evapotranspiration — the process by which water vapor rises from the plants and soil.

Although agrivoltaic systems are more likely to be implemented in warmer, arid landscapes, this research shows the potential application in colder or moderate areas, such as in Canada, where the research was conducted. 

“We show how moderate climates can also create environments in which agrivoltaic designs might prove advantageous over traditional solar PV,” Williams said.

This research advocates for further use of agrivoltaic systems going forward due to their fulfilling both food and energy needs and posing major implications for the future dynamic between land use types. Understanding potential synergies between food production and solar energy is a significant step in mitigating environmental issues. 

Overall, the use of agrivolatic systems shows the potential for crop plants to receive the necessary resources required for their growth while still being covered by efficiently engineered solar units. 

“We are showing potential for solar panels in agrivoltaic systems to produce more power than in traditional solar PV sites,” Williams said. “This sets a precedent for broadening the global applicability of agrivoltaics.”