The more you read into the most promising solutions to climate change, the more everything seems to fall into place. Sustainability is an incredibly broad subject ranging from the very big to the very small but, even still, so many of the solutions intersect with – and directly benefit – one another.
In other words, creating a sustainable future is about making those connections between one thing and the next. Between commercial solar, and how those carbon savings trickle down to the individual, for instance.
Toward the end of 2022, during Liz Truss’s brief stint as Prime Minister, a real reluctance to embrace the future of solar energy became clear. Whether that reluctance was shared or refuted by the rest of the Tory party remains to be seen, although, even now, they remain preoccupied by the notion of augmenting the UK’s nuclear power production. The trouble is, if we make that connection between one thing and the next, it becomes clear that nuclear power is far from a sustainable solution for the country’s future.
Truss’s distaste for solar was largely directed toward their impact on farmland –the ‘blight’ they would (supposedly) come to represent on the UK’s landscape. Her distaste for solar farms was epitomised by plans to ban solar from around 58% of agricultural land in the UK.
Appearance aside, however, solar power’s capacity to benefit farmland (and the world beyond it) goes far beyond aesthetics. It could be an even more powerful tool for the future than many of us assume.
What are solar farms?
Broadly speaking, solar farms are large areas dedicated to the production of solar energy. Instead of a (relatively small) solar PV system on the roof of a home, office block, or factory, these farms are designed to produce solar energy on a mass scale, and harness as much of the sun’s daily power as they can.
It should come as no surprise that commercial solar is primarily responsible for the world’s current solar capacity. At the time of writing, China represents the world’s largest producer of solar energy, and much of this is the result of the incredible capacity of their solar farm. Golmud Solar Park, for instance, is currently the biggest commercial solar farm in the world, with around seven million panels covering around 640 acres of land.
Many parts of the world are placing a growing dependency on solar farms. In the UK, the largest solar farm is currently located in Flintshire, Wales. Covering 250 acres, it’s capable of powering many commercial processes in the area. Between England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, there are just under 500 solar farms in total.
What’s the problem with solar farms?
Commercial solar production takes up a fair amount of space. Since every panel needs to get unfiltered exposure to the sun, it’s simply not possible to stack these panels in order to save space. Trees and other impediments to that sunshine reaching the panels need to be removed, which does inevitably mean that their arrival does change the landscape somewhat.
This is a small price to pay for the ability to divorce ourselves, once and for all, from fossil fuels, and the volatile fluctuations of the global energy market. With the capacity to power thousands of homes and businesses with clean, infinitely available energy, it’s almost farcical that anyone could take issue with a solar revolution.
There are, of course, the costs of installation, but compared with the cost of building and operating a nuclear power station (which has a shelf life), this is hardly a compelling counter argument to solar.
The only other compelling criticism levelled against solar farms is that fact that they represent a new burden to commercial agriculture – that, the more we augment our capacity for solar, the less space we have for growing enough crops to supply the local area. After all, solar panels and crops depend on the same conditions – bright sunshine, and plenty of flat, open space.
But, as we mentioned at the beginning of this article, sustainability has a way of connecting back with itself – of producing new benefits like offcuts at the end of a production line. Benefits create new benefits, and that’s exactly what the world needs at the moment.
What are agrivoltaics?
Agrivoltaics refers to the intersection between solar production and agriculture. An agrivoltaic farm is also referred to as a dual-purpose solar farm – a place where farmable land is not sacrificed for solar production, but neither is the raw potential of all that sunshine.
While many people assume that solar panels would compete with plants for biomass, and that embracing one meant sacrificing the other, new research shows that this is far from the truth on active agrivoltaic sites, which are an increasingly common site in many parts of Asia.
As opposed to single purpose solar farms, agrivoltaic installations tend to be spaced slightly further apart, so that sunlight can still reach the crops below those panels, and raised higher above the ground for similar reasons.
How can solar boost agriculture?
In many, many different ways. It’s not just a case that solar farms are able to co-exist with agriculture without disrupting crop growth, soil quality, or livestock. Instead, there are many ways that solar farms can improve the outlook for crops and livestock, and the health of the surrounding environment, too.
For instance, an article originally published by Maggi Graham et al to the journal Scientific Reports demonstrates how wildflowers bloom later in the season when they are grown beneath solar panels. This is great for pollinating insects like bees, which is only a good thing when it comes to augmenting numbers and boosting biodiversity in local areas. In a world that is under severe threat as a result of dwindling bee populations, this is a benefit that we cannot fathom doing without.
When it comes to animal husbandry, agrivoltaics continue to benefit farmers. One study showed that sheep demonstrated a clear preference for areas of shade offered by solar panels, and that, in the summer, they consumed less water as a result of this shade.
Similarly, significant quantities of water can be spared as a result of the shade offered to crops by the PV panels, since the soil will lose less water to evaporation under too much direct sunlight. Incredibly, researchers have found that the water that does evaporate under these solar panels could actually help them to work better, since they will provide a natural source of cooling.
The benefits of agrivoltaics extend beyond their impact on crop growth and animal husbandry. For farmers, the unpredictability of the seasons – particularly as global warming continues to manifest in different ways around the world – means that financial stability is growing increasingly difficult to achieve.
But, with much of their farmland also utilised for solar production, farmers can always depend on a steady line of income as they export power into the national grid.
In this way, the upfront cost of building a commercial solar system can be offset by that steady, passive income very quickly – and so too can the financial ebb and flow of traditional farming. As a new generation of farmers begins to take over, that promise of financial viability will be more important than ever before.
Will the UK embrace agrivoltaics?
Hopefully, yes. With Liz Truss gone from her post as Prime Minister, we may well be seeing a growing commitment to widespread solar roll out from the remaining Conservative party. The government recently published their plans for boosting ‘home grown energy’, and stated a commitment to boosting the UK’s solar capacity by 500% by 2035. At this point in time, their interests seem to lie predominantly in solar installations on the roofs of homes and commercial premises but, with more and more information about the benefits of agrivoltaics rising to the fore, there’s a chance that the Tories could reverse their stance on solar farms harming the UK’s landscape.
Then again, perhaps these plans will be better served under a new government. In 2022, the Labour party reaffirmed their commitment to solar, and to ensuring that the UK comes to represent a global leader in terms of solar capacity.
Whatever happens to shape the country’s political future, however, we can only hope that the research continues to point toward agrivoltaics as a key solution for the climate crisis. Commitment represents one of the biggest hurdles to climate reform that we will need to overcome in the coming years, as it has been for many years before.
Climate solutions represent a fascinating topic. The more you look at them, the more connections seem to form between one seemingly isolated solution and the next. Agrivoltaics is the perfect example of this phenomenon, and we hope to see a lot more insight into this subject in the coming months and years.