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Can Solar Panels Save the Farming Industry?

The Industrial Revolution made farming more efficient. But it also brought about the painful demise of the previous economic model. As technology advanced it allowed harvesting to be done more quickly but at the expense of the labor pool. The loss of jobs as a result of innovations in farming has become a common trend ever since. Such new advents and alterations to the existing model farmers have often welcomed and detested with equal measure.

At the same time, the way the demand for agricultural exports operates has changed too. In decades gone by the capacity for far-distant nations to trade agricultural goods was—while by no means impossible in every instance—a far more difficult prospect. Today (allowing for the impact the coronavirus pandemic has temporarily placed on the process) the global exchange of agricultural goods is done with an ease and speed that would’ve been unimaginable in bygone eras. But this too has often placed a new pressure on farmers.

Technology Advancements Boosting the Revolutions of Farming

Yes, unquestionably some have benefited—and benefited massively from such a change—as farms that produce world-class “clean and green” goods now have a truly international market to export to. But for those who sell more routine goods, or find the international market has saturated their domestic audience with the same products they sell, the path to maintaining a steady profit year in and year out has become much harder.

Ultimately, such trends are not just problems for farmers, but for all others. Especially those within their native nations. It’s anticipated the years ahead will see the world become more unstable as a result of numerous factors, not the least of which the growing threat of climate change. In this regard, essentially every nation will face new pressures upon its quest for food security. It’s expected the survival of farming as a viable career and economic model will have growing urgency, locally and globally.  It is here that solar could be such an important element going forward.

Solar as a savior?

Solar agriculture (AKA “agrophotovoltaics” and “dual-use farming”) allows farmers to install solar panels that offer a way to make their energy use more efficient, and directly enhance their farming capabilities. For farmers with small tracts of land especially—like is commonly seen in France—solar agriculture provides a way to offset energy bills, reduce their use of fossil fuels, and breathe new life into existing operations.

In fact, according to a finding in recent years, Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute in monitoring experimental operations within the Lake Constance region of the nation, agrophotovoltaics increased farm productivity by 160% when compared to an operation that was not dual-use across the same period.

Like the solar industry as a whole, agrophotovoltaics remains young. However, alongside installations already in full operation around the world, there’s been numerous trial projects in France, Italy, Croatia, the USA, and beyond. The diversity of crops that can grow underneath the solar canopies is (allowing for variation of location, climate, and conditions) immensely impressive. Wheat, potatoes, beans, kale, tomatoes, swiss chard, and others have all grown successfully under solar installations.

Crops not only grow successfully under such setups but can see their growth season extended thanks to the optimal conditions dual-use offers, providing additional warmth in winter and cooler climates in summer.  A study in India’s Maharashtra region found crop yields of up to 40% higher thanks to the reduced evaporation and extra shading an agrophotovoltaics installation provided.

A real lay of the land

Although there is much to be positive about when combining the solar and agriculture industries together, there are challenges on the road ahead. As Gerald LeachSolar Magazine Interviewee Avatar, Chair of the Victorian Farmers Federation Land Management Committee, a lobby group that advocates for the interests of farmers in Australia told Solar Magazine, “In general, the VFF is supportive of solar developments, so long as they do not encroach on high-value agricultural land, such as in irrigation districts.”

That in turn, “the VFF believes that in order to facilitate an orderly process for the development of solar generation on farmland, large scale projects supplying power to the grid should require a planning and approval process to avoid unintended consequences”.

We look forward to advancements in solar agriculture that allow solar arrays and agriculture to co-exist, with mutual benefits to the agriculture and energy industries.

“There are many solar developments, particularly private ones, where sheep roam amongst the solar panels. Cattle are too big and risk damaging solar panels, but sheep, so long as you hide all the wiring out of reach, are perfect for keeping the grass down between panels.”

Furthermore, as David HuangSolar Magazine Interviewee Avatar, a project manager for renewable energy developer South Energy told Solar Magazine, “Siting a solar farm can be challenging as the electricity infrastructure in regional areas tends to require upgrades to support the renewable transition. Incorporating agricultural activities into solar farming also brings complexity into the design, and operations and management of a project”, and that accordingly:

Although the cost of solar as a whole is certainly reducing, the reality is solar agriculture installations can remain expensive—and especially if they are damaged. While strengthening and safeguards are put in place to prevent such a likelihood, damage to just one single pole can become a big problem. A problem that may be very hard to avoid season by season if a farmer still needs to operate heavy equipment around the installation, meaning one wrong turn of a steering wheel could potentially imperil the whole setup.

For numerous farmers, the solution to this problem has been one of placement. Separating the solar installation from other areas of farming activity can see some of the best benefits of solar agriculture missed out on, but it does provide additional security surrounding the structure. This type of setup sees prime land reserved exclusively for farming, with ancillary land (of second-order or third-order quality where the soil is not as nutrient-rich) utilized for a solar installation. Such an arrangement can ensure the disruption to any existing farming activities is minimized.

Adjusting to other emerging technologies

In fairly recognizing the promise solar has for farming in the future, it cannot be overlooked that other technologies arriving on the scene will be a case of history repeating itself. The anticipated growth in the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) within the sector is a key example of this. Although the field of robotics is not yet advanced sufficiently to the degree that we see highly sophisticated robots roam about our properties attending to manual labor tasks, we are certainly shifting in that direction.

What’s more, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (AKA drones) are already in use across many farms, and it’s expected their capacity to take on a greater variety of tasks in the future will only increase. In what is a central theme in assessing the future of the farming industry, farmers must seek to master the advancing technology for their profit—or risk finding their profits are mastered by technology’s advances.

The forecast ahead

It’s no secret the future of farming will see new threats arise that threaten its survival. This not only owing to the advances of technology, but the impact of climate change. At the same time, technology advances notwithstanding, farming in the future will still require—at least for many years to come if not quite forever—the need for human expertise.

To administrate the farm, make managerial decisions, and indeed even to cast a human eye over an opportunity or problem on the land that AI is just not yet able to do in the same way. What’s more, as the challenges within the international community grow in years ahead as a result of climate change and other factors, the recognition of governments that more support must be given to their respective agricultural sectors shall grow too.

True, if the past is anything to go by this will not solve all woes or remove all problems, but it does mean there shall be a new dynamic in the next era of farming. One where solar offers immense potential as a beneficial technology and the need for greater food security is essential. Solar alone cannot save the modern farming industry—but it can certainly be a powerful tool in helping build a strong new chapter for it in the future.

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