Taking Solar Farming to New Levels

Agrivoltaics are a rapidly growing sub-sector of solar energy poised to take off soon as its many benefits are becoming more and more well known.

Taking Solar Farming to New Levels

With agrivoltaics, it is not so much a change in technology but rather a change in placement. ​​A farmer could hypothetically generate energy while providing shade by installing photovoltaic (PV) solar panels atop large structural poles and situating them right above growing crops. Because of this mindful placement of the panels, the crops can thrive due to increased water retention and burn prevention. However, this method is best used for crops that can withstand some shade, as produce that requires full sunlight might not see the same benefits.

Perhaps what makes this sub-sector even better is its accessibility due to the mainstream growth of PV panels. Likewise, the concept is so simple that an individual can merely install the setup without needing a fancy machine or the help of large companies.

A similar example is Byron Kominek, a Colorado farmer who had the ingenious idea to set up an agrivoltaic system on his family's farmland. Kominek partnered with the Colorado State University and the National Renewable Energy Lab to install 3,200 panels on 8-foot poles.

He quickly saw this design's benefits when his crops started thriving under the given conditions.

Nevertheless, because this sub-sector is rapidly growing, so are the ideas surrounding it. This brings us to an initiative based in the Netherlands that is taking agrivoltaics to the next level to help improve energy output.

New and Improved

Developed by a consortium, the design, named the H2arvester, includes impressive specs that can help maximize crop efficiency and energy generation.

The 40x20 ft device boasts solar panels, an onboard irrigation system, and an electrolyzer that can produce hydrogen. "The solution to convert the generated kWh directly into hydrogen not only provides an autonomous production plant, but is also a solution to the need to balance the production and use of generated energy without worrying about reinforcements of the electricity network," said Robert Jacobs, energy specialist at L'orèl Consultancy.

Another unique aspect that sets this device apart from its competitors is mobility. The H2arvester sits atop structural poles and wheels that can move at a speed of roughly 30 feet per hour during the growing season. Even better, the wheels can allow the device to be moved during the harvesting season to make gathering the crops that much easier.

"The solar car concept was developed four years ago by my company and two other partners," said Marcel Vroom, responsible for design and business development at Npk design. "At the moment, there are two pilots being tested, the one in Oude-Tonge and one in Lelystad, at the research farm of the Wageningen University. Both systems will be operating for one year to test the effect on the yield and the land, to show that there will be no loss of agricultural production."

The devices were constructed in a group effort by companies and individuals alike, such as InnovationQuarter, Jacob Jan Dogterom, Npk design, Kitepower, Rho, L'orèl Consultancy, Accenda, and TU Delft, amongst others.

A Bright Future

PV solar energy is an ever-growing and expanding field. With prices reaching all-time lows over the past few years due to a wider mainstream acceptance, this renewable energy has helped pave the way for a future no longer reliant on fossil fuels.

On the positive side, solar energy hosts various benefits, including renewable energy generation, lower greenhouse gas emissions, lower ecological impact, and easier installation. These benefits have lent way to where solar has made it today, a relatively popular choice for alternative energy.

That isn't to say that solar doesn't have some challenges, as most things in life do. The discrepancies with this form of energy include a lack of constant energy generation, some environmental impacts, though fewer than fossil fuels, and a major one, land use.

Over the years, these challenges have been met head-on thanks to the help of researchers and companies. These remedies include generating solar energy at night, installing solar panels on buildings, making solar panels more efficient, and the more recent sub-sector, agrivoltaics.

Initiatives such as Kominek's and that of the consortium can help to streamline the solar energy field further, helping its widespread adoption while simultaneously lowering atmospheric emissions.

It is only a matter of time until agrivoltaics takes off; until then, we can credit examples such as these for pioneering the way.

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