Is Solar a Farmer’s Enemy?

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” – Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

Photo Credit: City of Lexington

Recently when gathering news about solar energy developments, I discovered that officials in Lexington, Kentucky are petitioning to stop a proposed solar farm. Mayor Linda Gorton says the city is worried about the impact of solar farms on the agriculturally-zoned land because farming is an essential part of economy of Fayette County.

I began to wonder – is solar really a farmer’s worst enemy? Are there possible compromises between sustainable energy and profitable farming?

Fortunately, the answer to the latter question is “yes.”

People harvesting plants at an agrivoltaic farm. Photo Credit: Gabriela Lombana Arias

Many people tend to think that solar development will harm agriculture because it requires similar land use – flat land with plentiful sunshine. Yet it’s actually possible to locate solar and agriculture together on the same acreage. This creative “land-sharing” strategy is called Agrivoltaics, also known as co-location or dual-use solar, in which plants and animals are underneath or adjacent to solar panels.

Agrivoltaics brings many additional benefits to farming communities. For instance, farmers can lease their land to solar developers to diversify their revenue sources. Moreover, setting solar panels above the farmland reduces water for irrigation by creating shade, improves crop yield in dry or hot seasons and extreme weather, and reduces operations and maintenance expense thanks to lower mowing and herbicide costs.

Co-location not only benefits farmers but also helps solar users by improving the performance of solar panels and lowering the non-hardware costs of energy production. Given the higher humidity created by plants, photovoltaic cells are cooler and can generate more energy.

As of June 2023, there are 566 agrivoltaics sites in the United States that together have generated 10 gigawatts of solar capacity, most of which is at grazing and pollinator habitats. According to a study conducted by Argonne National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, there are 1,350 additional square miles of domestic agricultural land that could benefit from pollinator habitat at solar facilities. In total, the farmland in the U.S. has the technical potential to generate 27 terawatts of solar energy through co-location — a quarter of the total of the nation’s current solar energy capacity.

Photo Credit: AgriSolar Clearinghouse.

At present, there are various forms of support available to help develop agrivoltaics. The AgriSolar Clearinghouse, for example, is an information-sharing, relationship-building communications hub for businesses, land managers, and researchers interested in agrivoltaics to learn and connect with each other.

Moreover, tax credits are available at both the federal and state levels to encourage farmers integrating solar into their lands with low costs. The United States Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy have also provided funding for projects to research the benefits of agrivoltaics.

But what about all those metal and chemical components in solar panels? Some people may be concerned that the silicon-based photovoltaic (PV) cells in solar production could harm soil health. Nevertheless, an Electric Power Research Institute report concluded that the metal leaching from PV modules is unlikely to lead to significant risk because the installed cells are sealed. Some solar modules also use cadmium telluride (CdTe), and although Cadmium compounds are toxic, they won’t leak unless industrial incineration temperatures are reached. In some cases, agrivoltaics could even benefit soil health by reducing soil erosion, increasing carbon sequestration, and moderating soil temperature.

Brittany Stale of Sprout City Farms, farm manager at Jack’s Solar Garden, picks tomatoes.

Admittedly, agrivoltaics development faces obstacles. In Rockport, Maine, for example, the largest domestic agrivoltaics site was launched on a blueberry farm in 2021. Despite its ambitious renewable production and food production goals, the solar panels in the area have significantly reduced blueberry yields due to the limited amount of sunlight they can catch. Additionally, farmers must use smaller, specialized equipment to access the bushes. Such inconvenience for farmers and the questionable profitability of the berry lands are problems that still need to be addressed.

Despite the difficulties in developing dual-solar, there are successful cases. Take Jack’s Solar Garden, a family-owned solar farm in Colorado that benefits from working with the nonprofit Sprout City Farms. This 1.2-megawatt community solar garden has attracted research, offered informational tours, and yielded over 25,000 pounds of veggies, herbs, and berries since 2021.

Agrivoltaics seems obvious, yet it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Still, as more farmers and researchers in the U.S. experiment with different forms of construction and land with co-location, I am looking forward to the spread of this innovative farming and solar energy solution.

RCC Stanback Fellow – Maria Ding

Maria Ding is a sophomore at Duke University majoring in Financial Economics with an Energy & Environment Certificate. Passionate about energy, she aspires to promote energy transition for the world. Maria is now the Associate Director of Special Programming at the Duke Energy & Climate Club, where she helps committed young people better explore their interests in energy.