A group of scientists, energy consultants, ag tech and green energy business owners came together last month to discuss how solar energy can help tackle the province’s looming energy crisis – and they say it could help farmers at the same time.
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Members of the newly-formed Agrivoltaics Canada held an inaugural conference at University of Western Ontario’s (UWO) Ivey Business School’s Energy Policy and Management Centre on Dec.8. Its theme was ‘Agrivoltaics in Canada: Enhancing food, energy and financial security.’
Agrivoltaics, described in simple terms, is the use of agricultural land for both food and solar photovoltaic (PV) energy production. At its core, its essentially a land-sharing proposition that proponents say benefits both farmers and consumers of energy.
Instead of having solar PV in pastures, on buildings, or other areas of land not used to grow food, as we are used to seeing in Ontario, ground mounted solar PVs could potentially be set up in between crop rows (which is being done in Europe), or built on metal racking to form a sort of pergola-style structure to allow solar PVs to move with the sun. The design and placement of the solar panels on farmland really depends on what crop is being grown.
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Agrivolatic set-ups can have hundreds, or thousands, of PV panels, allowing for much more solar energy to be harvested than is currently realized.
Although in its infancy in North America, agrivoltaics has been gaining ground in Europe over the last few years in Europe and China is currently the global leader, according to conference panelists.
The United States has also started to embrace the concept, said Joshua Pearce, an engineering professor and the John M. Thompson Chair in Information Technology and Innovation at the Thompson Centre for Engineering Leadership & Innovation at UWO and organizer of the conference.
He noted that the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act released by the U.S. government last year has an aggressive and comprehensive plan to reduce climate change that will expedite the growth of renewable energy. The Act contains a massive amount of funding – $128 billion – devoted to the development of renewable energy development and grid energy storage.
In total, the Act will provide $391 billion in provisions to make the country more energy secure and mitigate climate change.
Pearce told attendees that if he were based in the U.S., he is “confident” he could get funding in the seven-figures for agrivoltaics research. Interest is so great, he said, that a former graduate student of his based in the U.S. has started her own agrivoltaics company, and is so busy she’s had to hire additional staff. And she hasn’t been in business a full year.
Panelists at the conference believe that Canada is far behind the rest of the world in the development and adoption of renewable energy. It’s an “urgent opportunity” with huge potential to provide clean energy, with the added bonus of helping farmers make more money by selling excess energy to the provincial electric grid without sacrificing yields in food production. Some recent research in the U.S. and Europe shows that agrivoltaic set-ups can actually increase yields by helping to conserve water in the soil and protecting plants from too much heat.
In Ontario at least, the interest in solar energy died with the demise of the microFIT (feed in tariff) program, said panelist Rob Sinclair, president of the advisory firm EnerStrat Canada. “We have to do something different if we want more investment in solar.”
Agrivoltaics is certainly different – but will farmers, as well as consumers, buy in? And will the government? The previous provincial government was the largest funder of the microFIT program. The current government is not likely to be as financially supportive, having cancelled numerous renewable energy programs and the cap-and-trade program and looking to make up an energy shortfall when the province’s nuclear plants get upgraded by supplementing with fossil fuel-powered energy.
The panelists agreed that one of the biggest obstacles to overcome is the fact that people just don’t like the ‘look’ of solar. The primary obstacle, though, is Ontario’s electrical infrastructure just simply won’t support it, even with farmer buy-in.
But that isn’t stopping the algrovoltaics group from moving forward. Pearce said this summer, he has several trials planned at UWO’s research farm that will look at crop production parameters with the use of agrivoltaics.
The purpose of the conference was start necessary discussions. However, there was a lack of farm voices and agriculture knowledge at the invitation-only conference. While they recognized that farmers may have concerns regarding having permanent structures on their land and what impact that could have for their land and future farming generations, much more work needs to be done on whether or not it will be worth it financially to farmers.
But as my colleague Robert Arnason points out in an article from our Jan. 9 issue, usable agricultural technology takes years, or decades, to come to fruition. Farmers could be dual energy and food producers not too far away in the future.