Scope of Solar Farming - Challenges & Opportunities
Solar Performance Specialist
According to the United Nations median projection, the world population is expected to grow by 8.5 billion people in 2030. With the rapid growth of population the demand for food and electricity is increasing tremendously. Although there is an increase in food production, there is still a decrease in per capita food availability. This will ultimately lead to poor distribution of food resulting in hunger and deaths. There will be lack of medical services, problems with power shortage and distribution. What should we do about this? We can combine energy production and food production. But will combining solar technology and farming be a viable solution to all of those problems? Let’s take a closer look at the benefits and challenges of adding solar to our farm.
Agrivoltaics or Agriphotovoltaics(APV) combines agriculture with electricity generation by farming under a canopy of solar panels. By combining solar and agriculture, we can use sunlight for a dual purpose:
- To grow crops
- To generate electricity.
Now, the question arises: will it be suitable for the growth of plants if we cover them with solar panels? To answer this, let's understand the basic theory associated with the growth of plants. We all know that the plant requires sunlight in order to carry out the process of photosynthesis (the process by which plants use water, sunlight & carbon dioxide to produce oxygen and energy). So, there is a limit to how much sunlight an individual plant can use. This is known as a light saturation point. Plants can’t absorb any more energy beyond this point, so they need to get rid of excess energy by evaporating water.
If we place solar panels above the plant we can regulate the amount of sunlight reaching the plant. In return, we get an optimum level for maximum growth and minimum water loss for plants. All the excess sunlight that was previously wasted can now be captured by the solar panels to generate electricity. And if we place solar panels at a good height then this will be suitable for the operation of machinery used in farming and provide a cool environment for the farmers to work. There is a reciprocal relationship between the solar panels and the plants.
As the plants grow beneath the panels they help to keep the panels cool. Amusingly, solar panels work best when the operating temperature is normal. High atmospheric temperatures reduce their efficiency.
NSEFI(National Solar Energy Federation of India) study suggests that by converting 1% of India’s irrigation land to agrivoltaics we could get 187GW of energy. If we convert 1% of India’s dry land to agrivoltaics we can get 673 GW of energy which is almost 1.5 times of our 2030 renewable energy target. This will also save a significant amount of water and create a sustainable long term food production system.
According to a report published by NSEFI there are 16 operational agrivoltaics system in India. The agrivoltaics system can be classified into three categories.
- Interspace farming- Crop cultivation between the space of two rows of panels.
- Farming below the panels, installed at conventional structure height- Farming below the panels which are installed at an optimum tilt angle, where machinery cannot be used for cultivation and manual farming is done.
- Farming below an elevated structure- Agriculture below solar panels which are elevated at a height of 3m above the ground.
Challenges associated with Solar Farming:
- Solar panels need a lot of space to generate a good amount of electricity.
- It is very challenging to balance the extra costs sustained for facilitating agriculture below the solar panels.
- Major constraints faced by solar developers are the cost involved in higher structure and cleaning of panels installed at heights.
- Miscoordination between stakeholders will also affect the agrivoltaics either in terms of not getting enough generation or good yield or both.
- Since this technology is still under research and development in India so, the performance analysis has not been done yet.
- There is a lack of data investigating potential differences between different types of solar panel technologies being used and the effect of solar panel spacings on plant growth.
- No known research is available to measure the influence of vegetation on the performance of solar panels.
The other challenges are the government policies and schemes. Since this is a costly technology certain financial incentives must be provided by the government to farmers and solar developers in order to promote solar farming.
Solar farming looks promising!! This method is best for countries with huge populations and constricted land to make the best use of their lands. Despite the fact that the basics of solar farming have been known for a few decades. There is still research and developments going on to find the best ways to adopt solar farming. Still, more work needs to be done to ensure its economical viability. Although there are certain constraints, India has a huge potential for agrivoltaics and the time for agrivoltaics is now!!
Also read: India & Renewable Energy in 2022