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Oct 26, 2023 Energy

Enhancing Biodiversity and Agriculture Through Solar Energy

Historically, the farming industry has been closely associated with responsible stewardship of natural resources. However, it is now expanding its sustainability efforts to include renewable energy sources, such as solar power. This shift not only serves the obvious purpose of reducing carbon emissions and mitigating pollution but also offers additional advantages, particularly when agriculture and solar power generation are combined, a practice often referred to as agrivoltaics. This synergy can optimize land use efficiency and productivity.

A recent study conducted by Solar Energy U.K., in collaboration with Lancaster University and consultancies Clarkson & Woods and Wychwood Biodiversity, found that many solar farms in Britain are fostering the growth of declining species, especially those managed for conservation purposes. The study also highlighted that insects inhabiting areas around ground-mounted photovoltaic panels can benefit neighboring agriculture by increasing the availability of pollinators. Additionally, these solar farms can serve as a significant resource for invertebrates, given the copious nectar they produce.

One noteworthy example is the European independent power producer, Alight, which recently introduced sheep to graze on the grass at its 7MW solar park in Åhus, Sweden. These sheep freely roam among the solar panels, preventing weed encroachment. The panels also provide much-needed shade for the sheep, who often seek refuge from the sun. To ensure the safety of both the sheep and the resident shepherd, Alight has taken measures to protect them and provided education on operating within an electrical producing facility.

Warren Campbell, Alight's Chief Operating Officer, has noted that there is existing research suggesting agrivoltaics offer a "better grazing environment than an open field." Campbell emphasizes that the management of crops within the solar park is also feasible through the strategic spacing or elevation of solar panels. When considering potential solar panel sites, Alight prioritizes assessing the existing biodiversity and exploring ways to enhance it. Campbell recognizes that farmers are long-term custodians of the land, deeply committed to its welfare, both environmentally and economically.

Furthermore, placing solar panels on agricultural land provides additional benefits for farmers. According to Tom McCalmont, CEO of the solar canopy company Paired Power, solar panels can cool the ground beneath them, enabling farmers to retain moisture in the soil and cultivate higher-value crops. Many farmers in the United States, facing challenges with grid connections or rising diesel prices, find these advantages compelling, especially as they consider going off-grid or transitioning to electric tractors.

As McCalmont points out, we are rapidly moving towards a world where electrification is prevalent. Generating energy locally to where it will be consumed, such as placing solar panels in fields, aligns well with this trend and offers clear benefits for farmers. David Meyers, founder of Gridtractor, shares the excitement of generating power onsite, being largely off-grid, and using solar-generated electricity to operate farming vehicles. Many farms in California have already adopted solar energy to power irrigation systems, and there is potential to expand capacity to support electric tractors and other farm equipment.

Moreover, the transition to electric farming vehicles can help reduce the carbon footprint of crops, aligning with increasing consumer and retailer demands for environmentally responsible farming practices. This shift can also contribute to improved air quality in farming areas, benefiting both farm workers and local communities. In summary, the integration of solar energy into agriculture not only promotes sustainability but also offers a promising avenue for enhancing biodiversity and farming practices, aligning with the evolving needs of the farming industry in a rapidly changing world.

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