Complex scenarios never have a single solution: it is the combination of different practices that makes progresses happen. Agrivoltaics is an example of how difficulties give rise to innovative ideas on essential aspects of human life such as food and energy production. Several years will have to pass before these solutions can actually be part of the ecosystem. Research and early implementations indicate that this is the way forward.
But what is agrivoltaics? What are its advantages and disadvantages? In this Journal’s article we will introduce you to the topic.
Before we delve into the subject of photovoltaics, let’s first take a look at why the agricultural sector should incorporate energy production. In other words: why is agrivoltaics so necessary?
Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of modern age. The way energy is produced has an impact on an ecosystem that is already in serious conditions. Electricity consumption is constantly increasing due to three main factors:
If these processes cannot be altered, what we can do something about is the energy production system. It is therefore essential to ensure that renewable sources account for an increasing share of the total energy produced and consumed.
In Italy, the spread of solar installations is limited mainly because of the scarcity of land. Our country does not have vast sunny plains. Moreover, there are many areas with landscape restrictions. This is why there is more and more talk of agrivoltaics in Italy: the technology would allow two fundamental sectors to coexist in a single space.
Now let’s see what it is all about.
WHAT IS AGRIVOLTAICS?
Agrivoltaics, agrovoltaics or agrophotovoltaics involves the installation of solar panels on agricultural land. Agrivoltaic systems are steerable energy production systems connected to each other through remote control softwares.
Agrivoltaics is an innovation that, according to the Italian National Agency for Energy and Sustainable Economy (Enea), will contribute to achieving the objectives of the national energy plan.
The reason why agrivoltaics is attracting particular interest in this country is that photovoltaics requires large extensions. Therefore, in some cases it has to be integrated into land that was originally intended for other uses. One example of this is solar panels installed on the roofs of houses.
With agriculture, however, it is a different story. So how can solar panels be implemented without damaging plants or affecting crop yields?
WHAT ARE AGRIVOLTAIC FARMING SYSTEMS?
First of all, the systems are not installed directly on the ground, but on structures up to several metres high. These are photovoltaic panels that are designed and manufactured for that specific purpose. Consequently, they are compatible with farming practices, machinery movements and, above all, with crops.
In other words, when we talk about agrivoltaics, we are referring to a specific systematic approach that is based on agronomic principles. The first scientific definition of agrivoltaics dates back to 2011 and was based on a simple consideration: photosynthesis in plants is not an efficient process in terms of converting sunlight into energy.
In fact, the efficiency of photosynthesis is around 3%. The efficiency of solar panels varies between 11% and 20%. Thermodynamically efficient photovoltaics integrated with crops thus become a vector for strengthening the role of the agricultural sector as an energy producer.
Its implementation, on the basis of very precise regulations currently absent in Italy, should enhance the economic performance of agriculture and its productive presence in the territory.
This means that photovoltaics in agriculture does not and should not serve as re-evaluation of so-called abandoned lands. The latter are often found in hilly areas that are difficult to access and of great landscape value.
As Legambiente notes, in these areas processes of reconstitution of natural capital are initiated spontaneously, providing ecosystemic services such as carbon storage and refuge for pollinators.
In short, photovoltaics must be applied in coexistence with agriculture and not as a substitute for it.
The advantages of agrivoltaics are numerous. The first and most obvious is the possibility of installing a photovoltaic park, even a large one, without taking away land for cultivation.
Contrary to what one might think, agrivoltaics does not reduce the yield of land, on the contrary. If applied properly and in suitable areas, it also has the advantage of reducing water consumption.
Another benefit is the direct involvement of farms, facilitating the energy and digital transition of a sector that has traditionally lagged behind in these aspects. With agrivoltaics, farms can become self-sufficient in terms of electricity production and consumption. Finally, the formation of energy communities is an incentive for the creation of farming community solar.
But is it true that agrivoltage improves crop yields? The answer is yes, as long as it is installed according to agronomic guidelines. The cover provided by photovoltaic panels prevents the rapid evaporation of rainwater and excessive soil warming in warmer regions.
Agrivoltaics are therefore particularly suitable for crops in the south of Italy, where there can be excess sunlight, which, among other things, depletes the already scarce water resources. At night, crops can be protected from sudden drops in temperature, reducing plant stress.
Photovoltaic modules must be placed high enough to allow plants to grow and animals to graze. Animals also benefit from shading of the panels.
Not all crops respond in the same way to the different light, temperature and humidity conditions offered by photovoltaic panels. In the pilot plants, an increase in yield was found for only a few types of activity. Some are therefore suitable for agrivoltaics (such as vegetable growing and animal husbandry), while others are not (wheat).
AGROVOLTAICS IN ITALY
In Italy, a strict ban on incentives for ground-mounted installations weighed on agrivoltaics from 2012 to 2020. The latter was introduced because of the intensive use of agricultural land for electricity production.
However, the 2021 Simplification Decree has made a breakthrough in the implementation of photovoltaics in agriculture. It provides for the possibility of adopting innovative and integrated solutions that do not compromise the continuity of agricultural and pastoral activities. The prohibition remains for ground-mounted photovoltaic modules. Access to incentives is also subject to the use of software to monitor the impact on:
Roberto Cingolani, Minister for Ecological Transition, declared himself in favour of agrivoltaics: “Our agrivoltaic model, which I have already discussed with the main organisations in the sector, is vertical and does not involve panels on the ground. The panels are raised and allow cultivation underneath. Without touching a centimetre of soil, the system makes the farm self-sufficient in energy.
Agriculture Minister Stefano Patuanelli spoke positively of the measure in the National Recovery and Resilience Plan. He pointed out, however, that it is necessary to draw up clear guidelines on incentive mechanisms. “Because otherwise farmers will rent out their land to energy companies that will produce energy, but nothing will be cultivated there,” the minister said during a hearing at the Houses of Parliament.
The PNRR has earmarked €1.1 billion for agrivoltaics, but it is not yet clear how the resources will be disbursed to the territories. In any case, a further boost will come from the National Energy Agency’s (Enea) initiative for sustainable agrivoltaics. The proposal aims to involve public bodies and businesses in sharing know-how for the development of new business opportunities and projects to combat global warming.
Enea’s objective is to increase installed power by 30 GW. According to the agency’s estimates, it would be enough for 0.32% of Italian agricultural fields to be covered by photovoltaic systems in order to reach 50% of the objectives of the National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan (PNIEC).
In short, the photovoltaic sector is a harbinger of innovation. If you want to stay updated, follow our JOurnal. To receive information on the development of agritech software, ask HT Apps. Our team will get back to you as soon as possible.