Solar power is becoming more popular, with green energy initiatives on the rise. At first glance, this may seem concerning for farmers who’ve spent years looking out over green pastures, since solar farms require much more land than fossil fuels. But there is a way for agriculture and solar farms to exist in a mutually beneficial balance: agrivoltaics.
Agrivoltaics, or agrophotovoltaics or agrisolar, involves using the same plot of land for agriculture and solar energy production. With agrivoltaics, farmers don’t have to give up traditional farm life to reap the benefits of solar panels. Instead, they can maximize the land by doing both. This article will explain how it works, its benefits, its drawbacks, and how to get started.
What Are Agrivoltaics?
Agrivoltaics is the practice of integrating solar panels and agriculture. It may involve creating space beneath or between rows of solar panels for crop production, pollinator habitats, or livestock grazing.
Setting up solar panel arrays in the past meant sacrificing acres of good farmland. But thanks to years of research, farmers and developers have learned to coordinate their efforts to benefit both parties. It may involve building solar panel arrays about 8 feet off the ground to allow space for crop growth and farm equipment.
As of the end of 2022, less than 2% of solar energy projects are on agricultural land. Research into the long-term impacts of agrivoltaics is ongoing, but the results have been promising enough for the Department of Energy to provide grants to farmers willing to set up solar panels on their working farms.
This type of dual-use farming can create extra income for farmers without disrupting crops or grazing patterns. Because there is no one-size-fits-all design, farmers and developers should work closely on a plan before setting up solar arrays.
Benefits of an Agrivoltaic System
Agrivoltaic systems provide many potential benefits to both farmers and developers, including financial benefits and environmental support.
Additional Income and Grants
Many farmers choose to lease their farmland to renewable energy developers, providing years of predictable income.
Additionally, several grants and incentives are available for farmers who decide to build solar panels. For example, the Renewal Energy for America Program provides loans and grants for farmers looking to implement renewable energy sources. You can also check out
AgriSolar Clearinghouse to see a map of agri-solar-specific programs throughout the United States.
Potential Water Savings
Water evaporation and transpiration rates are generally lower under the shade of the panels due to decreased heat and sun exposure. One study found that water evaporation decreased as much as 33% when evaporation containers were placed under solar arrays. This research may suggest that the soil and crops won’t need as much water to thrive.
Expanded Area for Shade-Tolerant Crops
Shade-tolerant crops are those that can grow without full sunlight and can often grow well in shaded conditions. Such crops include lettuce, spinach, kale, and certain herbs. Solar panels create shaded areas that can help certain crops flourish, particularly in regions where intense sunlight and high temperatures can otherwise hinder plant growth.
Also, the cooler temperatures under the panels can enhance the solar panels’ efficiency, contributing to a more sustainable and productive system overall.
Low Impact on Shade-Intolerant Crops
Some sun-loving crops also can grow beneath certain solar panels arrays. Specifically, research suggests that stilt-mounted agrivoltaic arrays have a limited or even positive effect on the sun-loving crop corn.
Agrivoltaic systems seek to make the most efficient use of the land, providing a renewable energy infrastructure around the existing farm. This reduces reliance on fossil fuels and lowers greenhouse gas emissions. Solar panels can also conserve biodiversity by providing space for plant and animal life that could not thrive on typical farms.
Drawbacks of an Agrivoltaic System
Before implementing agrivoltaics, farmers should also consider the potential trade-offs of investing in this technology.
Solar panel arrays are an investment. The up-front cost can be prohibitive if you don’t take advantage of grants or loan programs. While the average total cost of solar panel installation on a residential rooftop ranges from $17,430 to $23,870, a solar farm is larger and so is the price tag. For a solar farm, the average cost is between $0.92 and $1.04 per watt installed, which translates to between $920,000 and $1.04 million for a 1-megawatt solar farm.
Farm Practices Impact
Some farming practices don’t mesh with large, permanent equipment. For example, solar panels are probably not a good idea if you have to burn your fields every year. You may also have to consider whether crop rotation schedules and the size of your farm equipment is going to be compatible with solar panel arrays.
Sheep are the ideal grazing candidates for agrivoltaics, with chickens, ducks, and geese coming in as a close second. If you have goats or cows, you’ll want to build higher, as these animals are more likely to damage the solar panels.
Disruptive Development Process
Although agrivoltaic systems can operate smoothly once they’re in place, the construction and installation process can be lengthy. Depending on the side of your solar project, you’re looking at between three and 14 months. Staying operational during the construction process can be a challenge for some farmers.
Maintenance and Damage
Solar panels require regular maintenance and are susceptible to damage from severe weather and, as noted above, animals. These repairs can be costly.
Not Aesthetically Pleasing
Some people simply don’t like the way solar panels look. If you’ve spent years looking out over gently rolling hills or fields of vegetation swaying in the wind, you may not be interested in trading that view for a series of big black panels on your farm.
How To Lease Farmland for Solar Panels
Leasing farmland to a developer for solar panels can be profitable, with relatively little effort on the farmer’s part. There are generally six steps you need to take to lease your farmland to solar panel developers.
Step 1. Look Up Your Land Value
Find out the land value in your area, specifically for leasing to solar power developers. If land is scarce in your area, you may be able to increase your price.
You’ll also want to consider the size of land you want to lease and your proximity to an electric grid. Your land will be much more desirable to developers if you live closer to the grid because they won’t have to build additional infrastructure for interconnection.
Step 2. Understand the Lease
Solar farm leases typically last at least 25 years, so you’ll want to know how it works well ahead of time. Here are the phases of a typical solar farm lease:
- Development: Developers and farmers partner to make a plan for the land and construction. Permits are obtained.
- Construction: Solar lease begins and the development team constructs the solar panel arrays.
- Operation: The solar farm generates power and the developer pays the farmer (typically annually).
- Renewal: At the end of the lease, parties can agree to renew the lease.
- Reclamation: If the lease is not renewed, developers will deconstruct and remove the equipment.
- Termination: The end of the lease.
Step 3. Find a Developer
Finding a renewable energy developer will take some effort. Several renewable energy developers have websites where you can offer your land for lease, such as OYA Renewables. You fill out a form with information about your property, and they reach out to you to schedule an evaluation. Similarly, the nonprofit AgriSolar Clearinghouse can help you connect with other farmers and developers.
Step 4. Work with a Developer
Once a developer decides it wants to use your property, its team will work through due diligence. You’ll usually sign an option to lease agreement for this phase as you work out the details of your arrangement and obtain the right documents. This can take three to four years.
Step 5. Get Permits
You’ll have to get permits from your local building authority and electric company for new construction and interconnection to the grid.
Step 6. Sign the Lease
Once all parties have signed the lease, construction and operations can begin.
How To Buy Solar Panels for Farmland
If you’re looking to buy your own personal solar panels for your farm, there are six basic steps to purchasing them.
Step 1. Look for Grants
A good first step will be to look for any available incentives and grants to help you with the up-front cost of solar panels and installation.
Step 2. Set Up an Engineer Visit
Set up a consultation with an engineer to look at your property and help you make a plan for your solar farm. The engineer can also help assess your needs and get your solar panel order started. If you’re choosing to install your own panels, the developer may give you insight on the best kind of panels to order when you’re ready.
Step 3. Get the Permits
You’ll need to get necessary permits for solar panels: one to build and one to connect to the grid. If you’re working with a reputable solar panel company, it will likely obtain these permits for you.
Step 4. Order Your Equipment
The engineer’s visit should help educate you on what to look for, and you can do additional research before making your purchases. Ask around, look up reviews online, and read some consumer reports. If you choose to work with the engineer or a solar panel specialist throughout the whole process, they will take care of placing equipment orders.
Step 5. Install
Once your panels arrive, you can hire a certified installer to help build your arrays or you can do it yourself. Choosing to hire an installer or to install your own solar panels comes down to your skill set and the difficulty of the project. The installation process can take several months of physical labor, which may be time you need to devote to the rest of your farm.
Step 6. Get Approval and Connect
Before you can “flip the switch,” you’ll need to set up an inspection with someone from your local building authority—the same office where you obtained permits. They’ll check the system and ensure everything is properly installed and meets codes and safety requirements. Once they’ve approved your setup, you’ll receive permission to operate.
Agrivoltaics is a great way to address the growing need for sustainable energy without disrupting livestock or crop production. With an increasing number of resources and government incentives, it could be worth adopting this new system on your farm.
Before implementing agrivoltaics, farmers should consider the positive financial and ecological impacts and drawbacks to ensure it’s the right move for your property. You can check out organizations such as AgriSolar Clearinghouse to learn more and connect with other farmers who have installed solar panel arrays on their farms.
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