In the quest to combat climate change, the idea of using agricultural landscapes in the Midwest to support renewable energy production has focused primarily on building wind farms and growing plant feedstocks for biofuels. Another option, called agrivoltaics, represents a new opportunity to support farmers, increase diversity in agricultural landscapes, and facilitate energy production. Here’s how.
1. Agrivoltaics refers to the integration of agriculture and photovoltaic energy production. This concept includes growing crops, grazing animals, or increasing pollinator habitats underneath or between solar panels that are simultaneously generating electrical power. Agrivoltaics is viewed as a potential path to reduce competition for land between the energy and agricultural sectors while also supporting the U.S. goal of achieving carbon-free electricity by 2035.
2. It’s not a new concept, but rapid growth in agrivoltaics is a very recent phenomenon. The first mention of agrivoltaics is often connected to research in Germany in 1982, but the most substantial growth has occurred during the past few years. Based on data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, there are approximately 2.8 gigawatts (GW) of power generated at U.S. agrivoltaics sites, and they most commonly include sheep grazing and pollinator habitats. Wisconsin is going through a period of rapid growth in both solar and agrivoltaics. In 2023, there were already 36 agrivoltaic sites in Wisconsin producing a combined 82 megawatts (MW) of power on 445 acres of land, with more planned in the coming years. By 2026, the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin projects that 4.6% of total electric generation in the state will be solar.
3. Displacing prime farmland with solar arrays is often a barrier to large-scale solar installations. Opposition frequently stems from concerns about trade-offs between food production and energy security, reductions in farmland, and the feasibility of pursuing agriculture within solar arrays. For example, many crops grown in the Midwest, such as corn, cannot be cultivated at solar farms because the plants are too tall, or the arrays don’t allow room for conventional planting and harvesting equipment. Other concerns include the loss of identity and a way of life in small, rural communities. Agrivoltaics represents a potential avenue to reduce tensions and minimize compromises between food and energy that would otherwise occur.
4. When it comes to testing the viability of agrivoltaics, universities and utilities can be effective partners. For example, UW is collaborating with Alliant Energy to design and build a solar farm at the 300-acre Kegonsa Research Campus just outside of Madison, in the Town of Dunn (near Stoughton). Alliant Energy will lease 15 acres, and when the research site becomes operational in 2024, it will produce 2.25 MW of electricity — enough to power about 450 homes. Besides hosting research, the project will serve as a living laboratory for students and the public, providing educational tours and reliable information.
5. Agrivoltaics presents many unknowns, so more research is urgently needed — and UW is contributing. A university-led project funded by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation will use the Kegonsa solar farm as a Midwestern model system to investigate the impacts of solar arrays on many of the benefits we receive from nature — forage crop production, soil quality maintenance, pollinator habitat creation, carbon sequestration, heat island prevention, and groundwater recharge. The project will also explore how solar and agriculture might coexist. The hope is it will lead to a better understanding of how solar arrays can be designed to maximize shared benefits across the food, energy, water, and environmental sectors and serve as a resource for agricultural and rural communities.
Chris Kucharik is professor in the Department of Plant and Agroecosystem Sciences. He is collaborating on agrivoltaics research at UW with Josh Arnold, campus energy advisor; Ankur Desai, professor and chair, atmospheric and oceanic sciences; and Steve Loheide, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and he acknowledges their contributions to this article.
This article was posted in Bioenergy and Bioproducts, Changing Climate, Economic and Community Development, Fall 2023, Food Systems, Front List, Healthy Ecosystems and tagged Agriculture, agrivoltaics, Ankur Desai, Chris Kucharik, climate change, Josh Arnold, Kegonsa Research Campus, photovoltaic energy production, plant and agroecosystem sciences, solar panels, Steve Loheide, Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.