California is one of the sunniest states in America, receiving 5,050 kJ/m² of sunlight and 284 sunny days every year. Even Florida, the Sunshine State itself, can’t compete with those numbers. With all that daylight at its disposal, California has also become a potential home for agrivoltaics.
What, exactly, is agrivoltaics? It’s a new field that combines agriculture with solar power generation. When practiced correctly, it uses the same piece of land for those two separate purposes. For example, cover crops can be planted beneath ground-mounted solar panels, or commercial farming can be practiced between rows of solar panels. Livestock can even graze beneath the panels. The overall goal is to use the land simultaneously, generating solar power above while still growing crops below.
The benefits are numerous. Agricultural land tends to be sunny and flat, which makes it a perfect place to host photovoltaic panels. In turn, the solar energy that’s harnessed from those panels can help growers adapt to climate change, diversify their income through land lease payments, and create clean energy. Although agrivoltaics is more of an idea right now than a widely-accepted practice, solar-crop sites are already operating in states like Colorado, Massachusetts, and Maine. In areas like California, experts are still debating the pros and cons of using farmland to create solar power.
Things get a little complicated when it comes to maintaining a healthy growing operation in the shaded environment that’s created beneath rows of solar panels. Many crops need bright, unfiltered sun to thrive. Growers in California have come to rely on their state’s 5,050 kJ/m² of yearly sunlight, and adapting one’s growing operation to a dual-use agrivoltaics project requires time, start-up capital, and the willingness to suffer initial dips in farming efficiency.
Several states have begun rolling out financial incentives for agrivoltaics operations, which could help sweeten the deal for any Californians looking to covert their land to dual-use solar and agricultural production. There are several benefits to growing crops in shade, too. Shade can reduce a crop’s water needs and possibly create a more hospitable home for agricultural areas that are being adversely affected by climate change. Research shows that leafy greens like lettuce and spinach may do the best beneath rows of sun panels, as well as root crops such as potatoes, beets, carrots, and radishes. The local climate plays a big part in determining which crops can flourish in an agrivoltaics project, though. For example, a new report from Oregon State University’s Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering showed that blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries had the highest crop yields, with tall crops like apples, corn, and sunflowers proving to be the least effective.
In California, as growers continue to adapt to the state’s weather patterns and agricultural challenges, agrivoltaics may prove to be another option for increasing profit margins.