Growing commercial crops on solar farms can both increase commercial food production and improve solar panel performance and longevity, according to new Cornell University research published in the journal Applied Energy.
Lead author, Henry Williams, a doctoral student at Cornell said: “We now have, for the first time, a physics-based tool to estimate the costs and benefits of co-locating solar panels and commercial agriculture from the perspective of increased power conversion efficiency and solar-panel longevity.”
Senior author, Max Zhang, professor at the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering added:
“There is potential for agrivoltaic systems – where agriculture and solar panels co-exist – to provide increased passive cooling through taller panel heights, more reflective ground cover and higher evapotranspiration rates compared to traditional solar farms.
“We can generate renewable electricity and conserve farmland through agrivoltaic systems.”
Crops on solar farms
The study references New York as an example where about 40% of utility-scale solar farm capacity has been developed on agricultural lands, while about 84% of land deemed suitable for utility-scale solar development is agricultural, according to a previous research study from Zhang’s group.
The engineers showed that solar panels mounted over vegetation have lower surface temperatures compared to those arrays built over bare ground.
Solar panels were mounted 4m above a soya bean crop and the solar modules showed temperature reductions by up to 10°, compared with solar panels mounted a 0.5m above bare soil.
The cooling effect is more significant than that induced by greater panel height, and the passive cooling adds to solar panel efficiency, according to the paper.
The research indicated that the temperature drops lead to an improved solar panel lifespan – and improved, long-term economic potential.
“As you decrease the solar panel operating temperature, you can increase efficiency and improve the longevity of your solar modules,” Williams continued.
“We’re showing dual benefits. On one hand, you have food production for farmers, and on the other hand, we’ve shown improved longevity and improved conversion efficiency for solar developers.”
The authors state that understanding this mutually beneficial concept comes at a critical time for agricultural production, as global food demands are expected to increase by 50% by 2050, to feed an anticipated 10 billion people, according to the World Resources Institute.
At the same time, it is imperative to accelerate the deployment of renewable energy to mitigate the impact of climate change, the university researchers indicated.