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Just Add Sunshine -PART 2 How Solar Farms can help Farmers and Nature

-Image by Adolfo Cj from Pixabay

 We are told  – usually by fossil fuel interests and pro – nuclear enthusiasts, how solar installations (and windfarms) mar the landscape, harm the environment and destroy farmland. 

Though some of these giant installations do look rather intrusive initially, they don't have to stay that way as we'll see below, and the benefits will mostly outweigh the visual impact. In my view, countries which have any choice at all should not opt for energy sources which are likely to keep cooking us slowly, or those which leave behind intractable waste.

We've already seen in the previous post how smaller community grids close to where people live, don’t necessarily have to make a great blot on the landscape. Nor do they need a massive investment in infrastructure. The City of Heillbronn in Germany (population 128,334) for example, gets at least one third of its energy from community -run solar projects -mostly using rooftop solar and, according to Australia's Clean Energy Council, rooftop solar alone provided 39.4% of Australia’s energy needs in 2023. However, this is expected to double or even triple over the next  20 years if we are to include industry and aviation. 

There is no denying either, that mega cities may require large solar farms to meet existing and future demand for electric cars, heatpumps, airconditioners or even public transport. 

After the outrage in places like Australia about introducing emission standards or restricting the sale of ICE cars, no politician would dare suggest that citizens should give up their cars or devices to reduce emissions, even as we swelter, our crops fail or our life’s work is destroyed in a flood.  

While I too mourn the destruction of the landscape which takes place initially when large arrays are installed, I have to remind myself that the alternatives such as runaway climate change, will do far more damage, and there are many ways to mitigate this.

Big doesn’t have to mean Ugly or Destroying Farmland

Though opponents of solar installations argue that they will take up to 10 times the land area to produce the same amount of electricity that fossil fuel power stations do, it’s been calculated that in Australia it would take just 1,200 km2 of the 4.2 million km2 currently being used as farmland, to switch completely to renewable energy. 

In addition, since solar panels are usually tilted towards the sun or even elevated, they would occupy only  5% of the land according to one estimate, whereas another, by US based Landgate, puts it at a more conservative 30%, which would still leave around 70% of the land for agricultural activity. It can even be mutually beneficial.

In The Netherlands for example, solar panels provide shelter for livestock and crops and in both Kosovo and Minnesota, sheep are used to graze between solar panels so that the grass won't need mowing. There are many other benefits besides.

Creating Habitat, Encouraging Pollinators

By planting wildflowers among them, solar panels can attract  bees, insects, birds and other creatures, most of which are in decline throughout Europe and other parts of the world. 

See for example, what researchers at Lancaster University in the UK are doing to encourage pollinators such as bumblebees.   Bees and other insects pollinate 75% of the world's plants and 35% of the world's food crops. Cornell University in the USA has been conducting similar experiments since 2018 but also wants to provide habitat for hummingbirds and butterflies.

Researchers at the University of Oregon found that planting wildflowers and native grasses under solar panels increased the number of beneficial insects including native bees 20-fold and also benefited nearby soybean crops. Shade from solar panels also increased the abundance of flowers and helped the pollinators to flourish. 

This is particularly interesting because one of the reasons given for the decline of bees and other species is that, as the world has been becoming warmer, plants have been flowering too early for some migratory species. This could be a way of slowing that process down. 

Planting wildflowers under solar farms is also seen as way to rehabilitate Minnesota's prairies and is strongly encouraged by its state authorities.

How Solar Panels can Help Farmers

Bumper Crops, less Water

Obviously having more pollinators will help to boost crop yields, but solar panels themselves can do so too. According to Allison Trouter in "Adding Solar Panels to Farms Is Good for Plants, Animals and People"  (see full citation* below), when crops are grown beneath solar panels, there is less transpiration – water evaporating from leaves, which means a lot less water is needed to grow them – 20% less according to French studies, while returning the same yield. 
In 2019, a study by universities in Arizona and Maryland found that in dryland areas, crops grown under solar panels were 100 - 300% more productive, depending on the species, and needed up to 157% less water. They were also more protected from heavy rain and hail.

Better for Farm Animals

Farm animals* also need to drink less in hot weather when there is shade available beneath the panels on hot days.

-Image by Matt Levin under CC ND

Better for Solar Panels too

Solar Panels do better too when crops are planted underneath. In high temperatures solar panels can't function as well because their dark surface can absorb too much heat and thus warm the air around them more than usual.

 By having plants underneath, the transpiration of moisture helps to cool the surrounding air and the panels themselves, rather like an evaporative air conditioner. In the Arizona/ Maryland studies, temperatures above the solar panels were 160 F cooler and power generation increased by 2% when underplanted with crops. 

The whole field of Agrovoltaics, as this combination of farming and power generation is called, is very dynamic and will be one to watch because it marks a new era in agriculture. There are other potential benefits for farmers too.

Economic Benefits

The more renewable energy we have, the less warming there will be. In some cases and farmers may also gain renewable energy for their own use or offset costs or emissions - farming, like transport, being a major contributor. There is also the potential to generate a reliable income by hosting installations on their property. 

At a time when many Australian farmers are leaving the land due to rising costs, poor seasons or other concerns, this would make them less vulnerable to downturns. 

According to Landgate, in the US for example, return on investment for solar panels or wind turbines, ranges from 10 -25% with costs recouped within 5- 10 years and free energy for around 30 years thereafter. 

There are many large projects like this under way in the USA, Italy, Spain, Germany, Canada and Australia. There is even one in Tasmania which is hosting 670,000 solar panels to generate 288 MW of electricity – enough to power one quarter of the state’s homes, as well as supplying energy for farm machinery and irrigation. 

Carbon Credits and Emissions Reductions

In some cases, farmers may also be able to earn carbon credits to offset farming emissions or other forms of compensation. In the US for example, planting tall native grasses around your solar panels can earn you carbon credits.

In Australia, Carbon Farming and Biodiversity Credits may also be available. These involve restoring soils and landscapes and planting native vegetation, though there is some concern that there’s too much carbon farming going on and not enough actual farming or biodiversity protection, so these grants may not be available for long. 

Lastly, there is the also potential for job creation and boosting regional economies

As farmers in Europe and Canada protest against rising costs, demands for emission reduction and stricter environmental regulations as a result of The European Union's new Green Deal, there has also been a push against switching to renewables, since it is believed to be partly responsible for the high cost of power. However, as farmers are likely to be among those most affected by climate change, I would do the opposite.  As an old Australian saying goes. 

"If you can't beat them, join them!"

For some tips re leasing, the following might be good places to start, but do check around as I have no experience of either

In the USA - Landgate

* "Adding Solar Panels to Farms Is Good for Plants, Animals and People" 1 January 1970. <> 27 April 2024

[Thanks to Microsoft Bing AI for helpful suggestions and references ]


Coming Soon: There is another criticism of solar panels, with some claiming that they only last 25 years – newer ones can be expected to last 70 years, with early ones are starting to end up in landfill-  but I will leave that discussion to the experts at The Conversation