OSU: Solar panels on farms could supply 20% of U.S. energy
A study by Oregon State University researchers has determined that working farms that also host solar facilities could satisfy 20% of the future electricity demand in the United States, all at a cost that is a fraction of the country's annual budget.
Solar photovoltaic power generation in concert with agriculture, termed "agrivoltaics" by the researchers, could also lead to a reduction of 330,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions — the equivalent of removing 75,000 cars from the road each year — and create up to 100,000 jobs in rural communities, all while having a minimal impact on crop yield.
"Agrivoltaics provide a rare chance for true synergy: more food, more energy, lower water demand, lower carbon emissions and more prosperous rural communities," Chad Higgins, an associate professor in OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences and the senior author of the paper published in the journal Sustainability, said.
Higgins said he is excited about what the research could mean for rural communities in terms of addressing climate change and economic inequality.
"Rural America, agriculture in particular, can be the solution to many of our concerns, whether it be renewable energy, mitigating climate change impacts, sustainable food or good water resource management," Higgins said. "That connection is untapped mostly because there hasn't been sufficient investment in those communities."
The initial goal of the research, he added, was to determine if adding solar arrays to farms was viable.
"What we propose in this paper is all possible," he said. "It's technically possible. It's politically possible. And it would make money after the initial investment. That's the takeaway — that we should take a hard look at agriculture as a solution to problems rather than a cause of problems."
Higgins' analysis will be put to the test when the next step in his research unfolds at OSU's North Willamette Research and Extension Station in Aurora. There, a five-acre, fully functional solar farm will be installed to work in concert with agricultural activities. Ground will be broken on the new facility in May, with electrical production to start a year later.
Higgins' research, co-authored by doctoral candidate Kyle Proctor, determined that a combined area the size of Maryland — 13,000 square miles or about 1% of the country's farmland — would be needed for agrivoltaics to meet 20% of U.S. electricity generation.
The cost of such a project is estimated at $1.12 trillion over its 35-year lifespan. The hope is that private investors would fund the majority of the project, with the federal government contributing rebates and other incentives to construction. Proceeds gained from the sale of electricity generated by the solar arrays would pay back the $1.12 trillion bill in about 17 years, research found, and would generate an additional $2.45 billion in revenue over that time.
Implementation of the plan would also generate thousands of jobs over the course of two decades, the research found, including sustainable positions for operating and maintaining the arrays.
Ultimately, Higgins said, wide-scale implementation of agrivoltaic systems will foster other technologies: surplus energy could be used to power electric tractors or generate fertilizer on the farm and sensors could be installed on solar panels to support artificial intelligence-based decisions to improve productivity.
"Once we have infrastructure, once we have energy, we are ready to tackle so many more big problems," he said.
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