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CAN SOLAR AGRICULTURE SAVE THE MODERN FARMING INDUSTRY?

A farmer’s life has always been one of hard toil and many challenges. It’s no revelation to say in 2020 there are more challenges than ever before for farmers and the industry as a whole. Their causes are complex and diverse, and the realities of technological advancement and globalization have oftentimes added additional ordeals to their existence.

But it can’t be overlooked such phenomena has also brought many benefits to farming. So even though the industry looks upon a new decade with greater hurdles for its survival than ever before, there’s also the promise of emerging technology coming into mass use. Technology that can help farmers not only sustain, but thrive. Solar is an essential part of this new dynamic.

FROM THE 1800S TO 2020

The Industrial Revolution made farming more efficient. But it also brought about the painful demise of the previous economic model. As technology advanced it allowed harvesting to be done more quickly but at the expense of the labor pool. The loss of jobs as a result of innovations in farming has become a common trend ever since. Such new advents and alterations to the existing model farmers have often welcomed and detested with equal measure.

At the same time, the way the demand for agricultural exports operates has changed too. In decades gone by the capacity for far-distant nations to trade agricultural goods was—while by no means impossible in every instance—a far more difficult prospect. Today (allowing for the impact the coronavirus pandemic has temporarily placed on the process) the global exchange of agricultural goods is done with an ease and speed that would’ve been unimaginable in bygone eras. But this too has often placed a new pressure on farmers.

Yes, unquestionably some have benefited—and benefited massively from such a change—as farms that produce world-class “clean and green” goods now have a truly international market to export to. But for those who sell more routine goods, or find the international market has saturated their domestic audience with the same products they sell, the path to maintaining a steady profit year in and year out has become much harder.

Ultimately, such trends are not just problems for farmers, but for all others. Especially those within their native nations. It’s anticipated the years ahead will see the world become more unstable as a result of numerous factors, not the least of which the growing threat of climate change. In this regard, essentially every nation will face new pressures upon its quest for food security. It’s expected the survival of farming as a viable career and economic model will have growing urgency, locally and globally.  It is here that solar could be such an important element going forward.

SOLAR AS A SAVIOR?

Solar agriculture (AKA “agrophotovoltaics” and “dual-use farming”) allows farmers to install solar panels that offer a way to make their energy use more efficient, and directly enhance their farming capabilities. For farmers with small tracts of land especially—like is commonly seen in France—solar agriculture provides a way to offset energy bills, reduce their use of fossil fuels, and breathe new life into existing operations.

In fact, according to a finding in recent years, Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute in monitoring experimental operations within the Lake Constance region of the nation, agrophotovoltaics increased farm productivity by 160% when compared to an operation that was not dual-use across the same period.

Like the solar industry as a whole, agrophotovoltaics remains young. However, alongside installations already in full operation around the world, there’s been numerous trial projects in France, Italy, Croatia, the USA, and beyond. The diversity of crops that can grow underneath the solar canopies is (allowing for variation of location, climate, and conditions) immensely impressive. Wheat, potatoes, beans, kale, tomatoes, swiss chard, and others have all grown successfully under solar installations.

Crops not only grow successfully under such setups but can see their growth season extended thanks to the optimal conditions dual-use offers, providing additional warmth in winter and cooler climates in summer.  A study in India’s Maharashtra region found crop yields of up to 40% higher thanks to the reduced evaporation and extra shading an agrophotovoltaics installation provided.

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