Cero Generation

Agrivoltaics: How solar and farming can go hand in hand 

10 July 2023
Insights

First, a reflection on where we are at  

Over the course of the last two years, we have witnessed unprecedented spikes in energy bills and an energy system dictated by volatile prices and fragile supply chains. This dramatically underlined the importance of switching to home-grown energy, sparking record-breaking levels of renewable power generation across Europe. 

Solar development is growing at an exponential rate, with recent technology raising awareness around the importance of solar energy in reaching net-zero. Currently, the UK holds around 15 gigawatts of solar power capacity, and the government hopes to increase this to 70GW by 2035. This year, investment in solar power is likely to eclipse investment into oil production for the first time, according to the IEA

It’s safe to say that the net zero journey has stepped up a gear.  

As the fastest growing energy technology, solar is now in the spotlight. And on the one hand, it’s starting to get the recognition it deserves. But on the other, as an increasing number of solar farms are being developed, misconceptions about the technology have flared up. 

The myth: solar farms take up valuable productive land and displace crops 

Land use is an ever-contentious topic of discussion in Europe, and one of the most common misconceptions is that solar farms take up valuable productive land and displace crops, putting food security at risk. In some cases, this has sparked resistance to solar farms from local communities, who have actively opposed plans on this basis.  

For example, in the UK, the Mallard Pass Action Group was formed to object to a solar farm that could generate enough electricity to power 92,000 homes. Despite the project’s significance, the Mallard Pass Action Group cited some concerns with the proposals – one of which was about the impact on food security. In its view, the policies the UK government has put in place to promote renewable energy production stand at odds with other targets around domestic food production and security – a prominent concern in light of spiralling inflation across Europe. This is supposedly because some renewables, like solar farms, sit on land that is otherwise needed to grow crops.  

Similar concerns about the impact of solar on agriculture and food security have been voiced in Spain, where the opposition group Aliente has objected to solar farms that “ruin agriculture”, and in Italy, local campaigners and some politicians have rallied against projects that “invade agricultural land”. 

In the UK, local activism spread into the political sphere, to the extent that in October 2022, the environment minister proposed to ban solar farms from most of England’s farmland.  

The pinnacle of the claim that solar displaces crops is the idea that solar and farming are mutually exclusive. However, this is far from the reality! 

Agrivoltaics 

Solar farms do not need to displace crops – the two can go hand in hand, with agrivoltaics. Agrivoltaic solar farms share the use of farmland for both solar power generation and growing crops. Crops are grown beneath solar PV panels with enough space for farm machinery to pass underneath. Although in their infancy, agrivoltaic solar farms are becoming more widely known and implemented across Europe, and they hold the potential to address this conflict. Recently, Solar Power Europe has produced new guidelines for agrivoltaics, designed to support stakeholders in all stages of the project lifecycle. The guide addresses key learnings from existing projects and draws on past experience to demonstrate the growing importance of agrivoltaics.  

[Source: dezeen – Agrivoltaic solar farms offer “shocking” benefits beyond producing energy

Growing crops underneath solar PV panels has proven to have many benefits. The raised solar panels can shield plants from harsh weather conditions such as excessive heat, the cold and UV damage, often resulting in higher yields for farmers. In one study, agrivoltaics increased the yield of peppers by three times, while another suggests that at scale, agrivoltaics could increase global land productivity from 35% to 73%.  

As well as this, evaporation from the plants and soil act to cool the solar PV panels, increasing their efficiency and boosting the amount of electricity they can produce. Farmers also benefit from these mutual gains, as agrivoltaic solar farms offer up the chance to generate income from both the crops and the energy produced on their land.  

Cero leads the way 

And we can tell you ourselves. Cero currently has two agrivoltaic solar PV projects in our pipeline.  

Our first, Pontinia, is located in the Province of Latina in the Lazio region of Italy and is among the first large-scale agrivoltaic plants in the country. As well as generating enough renewable electricity to power the equivalent of over 47,000 homes, leading to the avoidance of around 40,000 tonnes CO2 per year, 65% of the land that Pontinia sits on will also be used for agricultural crops.  

Even more positive impact will be delivered through the collaboration between Cero and a social farm, which employs vulnerable and socially excluded members of the community to support with their reintegration. The social farm will be cultivating crops across the site using biodynamic and fuel-efficient methods. 

Meanwhile project Castrum, located in the Municipality of Montalto di Castro in the Lazio region, will generate enough renewable electricity to power the equivalent of over 32,000 homes, while at least 65% of the land will also be used for agricultural crops. 

Looking forward 

The concept of agrivoltaic solar farms is starting to gain traction. There’s no doubt that food security in Europe is paramount, particularly in light of the droughts, floods and wildfires seen across the continent in recent years. But one of the biggest threats to food security is the changing climate, and with solar power key to reversing the effects of this, it is a friend, not foe. Agrivoltaic solar farms offer a win-win solution and are increasingly being recognised by both industries as essential if we are to reach net zero.  

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