The new Agrovoltaico® technology has the potential to unleash a chain of double value, for agriculture and fertile land but also for solar energy production: the interaction between the two is fundamental to help not only the energy transition, but also to avoid fertile land to be expropriated for one only purpose. Giancarlo Ghidesi, COO of the leading company of Agrovoltaico® in Europe REM Tec, gives us thrilling insights on the technology developed
The wave of Agrovoltaico®
What is Agrovoltaico®? It can be translated in Italian as Agrovoltaico® or Agrivoltaic (AGV) German Agrifotovoltaik, Agrivoltaïsme in France and Solar Sharing in Japan.
The Agrovoltaico® uses the share of the sun irradiation by photovoltaic modules and the agricultural land underneath. This concept derails the conflict between photovoltaic energy production and agricultural production. The basic idea, which motivated the early pioneers of the AGV is to have the slightest impact on the agricultural land used for photovoltaic production and thus leave it available also for cultivation. The first experiments related to this technology date back to the early 80s and had to wait until 2011 in Italy to see a concrete and sustainable evolution of the concept, which issued the name Agrovoltaico®. With the support of incentive tariffs, which does not distinguish between a ground mounted PV plant and an Agrovoltaico® plant, in Northern Italy, 6.7 MW of plants has been connected in 2011 to the network, covering 45 hectares of agricultural land. Under these plants, various crops have been cultivated including corn, rice, wheat, barley, through classic agricultural means and without changing the methods of cultivation.
In recent years, worldwide interest in this technology has increased and has become the subject of research by several institutions, both public and private.
In 2018 Professor Stefano Amaducci, of the Catholic University of Milan, published the first scientific research on the effects of shading generated by an AGV system on corn, demonstrating that on a projection of 39 years the maize produces 4.7% more than a cultivation in the open field (Agrivoltaic systems to optimize land use for electric energy production Stefano Amaducci, Xinyou Yin, Michele Colauzzi, published on Applied Energy Volume 220).
This system can reconcile food production with the supply of energy from renewable sources.
The panels are built on suspended structures, which have mounted axes that hold the photovoltaic panels. These panels rotate thanks to the presence of an engine connected through a wireless communication system.
This type of structure allows the panels to adjust both orientation and inclination in relation to the position of the sun, in order to turn their surface perpendicular to the direction of the sun’s rays. In this way, the panels are able to intercept the largest amount of solar irradiation compared to traditional systems. At the same time, crop productivity can be stimulated by modifying the inclination of the panel during the different stages of the plant’s life cycle. This is a fundamental feature, thanks to which the system allows the change of the amount of light during the phenological phases considered critical.
For example, this happens during the setting of fruits or ripening, where it might be considered appropriate to increase the amount of light available for the plant. While in the phases not critical to development, it may be more advantageous to favor shading and consequently electricity production. It should be noted that light requirements vary according to the culture, the phenological phase and the climate.
The panels affect the amount of shade that the soil or crop receives. As a result, two areas are created: the first one is adjacent to the main axis of the panels where the shade is more intense, the second coresponds to the area where the shading occurs only at certain times of the day. Shadow, if handled correctly, has prominent advantages:
- Reduces the amount of water used by the plant.
- Promotes the maintenance of moisture inside the soil.
- Promotes the formation of a microclimate below the panels, in which, external temperatures are mitigated.
- Panels protect crops from extreme weather events.
In addition, below the Agrovoltaico® systems, unlike the traditional photovoltaic panels, common agricultural practices can be carried on without any constraint.
So, through Agrovoltaico® systems, the following goals are achieved:
- Recovering part of the abandoned agricultural land allowing the achievement of the decarbonization targets.
- Excellent compromise between the production of renewable energy and agriculture.
However, there are no standards in the design of Agrovoltaico® systems, but there may be different types of structures.
REM Tec as a patent company for Agrivoltaic technology proposes both fixed installations, where the inclination of the panels cannot be modified. This system has a simple type of construction, under which not all crops can be grown, the disadvantage is therefore immutable shading. Moreover, further research has implemented the orientation of the panel and consequently the management of the shade through:
- Monoaxial trackers must have space in between to avoid reciprocal shading: in this system trackers move to chase the trajectory of the sun, avoiding the permanent shading of part of the soil. Height and distancing are therefore not to affect normal agricultural activity. It is possible to create space among trackers so to leave some areas of land at rest as per crop rotations or due to maintenance;
- Biaxial tracker.
The latest design of Agrivoltaics
The last design of Agrovoltaico® systems allows to increase the specific power production of each tracker by using high density PV modules as well as the power production by using bi-facial modules.
This design increases the flexibility of the shadow management of the system as well as the power production. The consequence is an improvement of the photosynthesis of the crop underneath.
- Further technologies and applications
By 2030, according to Legambiente, PV energy must supply at least 60% of the production of energy from non-renewable sources. Reaching a production of 100 TWh, corresponding to an area of panels in the order of 50,000 hectares. However, it is clear that using traditional photovoltaic panels would require the usage of a very large AA (utilized agricultural area). Therefore, the adoption of Agrovoltaico® systems is fundamental to be able to decrease CO2 production and safeguard the planet.
For these reasons, Italy is not the only country where the use of agrivoltaics systems for the production of renewable energy and for the supply of raw materials is promoted.
In 2020, other nations such as Germany and the Netherlands, have begun the construction of 5 experimental agrivoltaic plants, where 4 different crops will be tested: blueberry, red currant, strawberries and blackberries. Germany is planning on using renewables to cover 65% of its power consumption by 2030 this means that new powerful agrivoltaic will need to be built. Indeed, one of the projects of Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE) in Freiburg is an Agrivoltaic plant in Herdwangen-Schönach, around 30 km north of Lake Constance, where a 2,500-square-metre pilot plant has been in operation for three years on the Demeterhof of the Heggelbach farming community. The solar modules, with an output of 195 kilowatts, generate electricity on five-meter-high steel structures, so that tractors and combined harvesters can easily fit underneath. BayWa r.e. in 2021 announces the completion of its first agrivoltaic plant combined with red currants in the Netherlands. Further agrivoltaic projects are currently being planned in Europe and the rest of the world by 2022.
France is currently developing a yearly tender process dedicated to agrivoltaic power plants.
- United States
In the United States, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Department of Energy, has supported the implementation of 25 experiments that include blueberry cultivation in Massachusetts.
NREL forecasts that by 2030, around 3 million acres (about 1 million hectares) in the United States to be covered by agrivoltaic systems.
On the Asian continent, more and more Agrivoltaic® plants are being installed, as one of the goals to be achieved by 2060 is to reduce CO2 production. To date, China is the nation with the highest level of CO2 emissions, so by 2060 it will have to cease more CO2 than it emits. For this reason, in 2020, China has increased the production of renewable energy from agrivoltaic systems by 40 GW, according to Vice President Wang Bohua of the China Photovoltaic Industry Association (CPIA. Total capacity of renewable energy production could also double in the next 5 years.
In the northeast of Qinghai prefecture in China there is one of the largest plants in the world with a capacity of 2,2 GW, it is second to the Bhadla plant (India), that has a capacity of 2,5 GW. This type of system has allowed the cultivation of plants within an area of China where precipitation is minimal. In fact, the shade reduces the evapotranspiration of the soil by 30-40%, allowing an increase in production. It has been installed at a height of 1.9 meters, which not only allows the cultivation of plants, but also allows the maintenance of the same by agricultural means. In the 2016, Panda Green Energy has installed an agrivoltaic plant on some vineyards in Turpan, in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Later, given the success of this system, several tens of MW were built. In the Jiangxi prefecture, in 2016, was installed an agrivoltaic system of 70 MW on agricultural and forestry crops. In 2017 in Anhui prefecture, particularly in the city of Fuyang, a 550 KWh Agrovoltaico® system was built. Today, agrivoltaic systems are mostly present in northeast China in particular: Xinjiang, Gansu, Quinghai.
Japan was the first country to develop an agrivoltaic system. In 2004, Akira Nagashima developed a removable structure conceptually similar to the Agrovoltaico® system that tested on different crops. Then, numerous plants have been developed with permanent facilities and with capacities of several MW, the first was built in 2013. In 2017, moreover, 1300 people have been employed, an increase of 13 times in just 4 years. At the moment, the most important construction project is in the Chiba area, the second in the Shizuoka area and the third in the Gunma area. In the Shiga area, the Japanese company Nisshoku has built an agrivoltaic system with a capacity of 526.4 kWp and has built 11 plants in the suburbs of Shiga, Hyogo and Kyoto with a total capacity of 11.1 MW. In 2018 a 35 MWp plant is installed or on 54 hectares, below the panels there is the cultivation of ginseng, ashitaba and coriander.
South Korea also installed the first 100 kWh agrivoltaic system in 2016. This project was started by Green Energy Institute Korea in Chungbuk Ochang, with rice, cabbage, ginseng, soybeans, garlic, and other vegetables under cultivation. The South Korean government has adopted an energy policy plan, where by 2030, 20% of energy supply will be based on renewable sources, compared to 5% in 2017. In 2019, the Korea Agrivoltaic Association was established to promote and develop an agrivoltaic industry, as it has reduced quantity of agricultural land compared to most nations. Initially, national laws on the construction of agrivoltaic systems made it impossible to build them near roads or residential areas, but they had to be installed on hard-to-reach areas and areas where cultivation was impossible due to slopes. In 2017 these rules were modified, allowing the construction of agrivoltaic systems. By 2030, the Government of South Korea plans to build 100,000 agrivoltaic systems.
A theme typical of new technologies is now opening up, namely, to draw up the criteria and rules for a plant to be called AGV. The focal point of this is that the primary factor must be agricultural production, not electricity production. Otherwise, there is an important risk that can result in the growth of the AGV and the profits of the workers, to the detriment of agricultural crops and the territory, with the consequent epilogue of unsustainability.
In order for the AGV plant to be an added value for agriculture, it is necessary for the plant to be in fact an agricultural machine, which can manage the determining factors for the growth of plants, namely light, water and temperature.
The scientific research of the companies that first developed the AGV model is oriented in this direction. It’s about creating algorithms that derail, sharing light, and then the apparent conflict between electrical and agricultural production.
In the ideal future, agricultural land will be partly covered by AGV plants. An integrated and smart system, where the farmer can use the energy produced by his plants, powering agricultural machinery and orienting PV panels to create the optimal and most favorable conditions for the growth of his products.
This concept apparently conflicts with the speculation of the energy producer PV who must make the most of the plant. It will therefore be a question of whether the loss of energy compensates for the increased agricultural production and how to increase or decrease shading and the amount of light needed by the plant. In parallel with this integrated and sustainable approach, are being born which appropriate the characteristic AGV, but which are in fact decoys to use agricultural land in order to produce PV energy, without leaving room for agricultural production. Some companies are proposing solutions with fixed panels on the ground, as in classic ground plants, on agricultural land under which chicken, sheep, earthworms, snails, etc. are planned, with the intention of defining this project: AGV.
This type of approach is the same as in the early years of the last decade, saw Europe teeming with greenhouses with roofs covered by PV panels, under which no agricultural products could be grown and were soon abandoned and relegated to PV production alone.
The hope is that insiders, invest in research while maintaining the basic principle and intention, AGROVOLTAICO®, means first of all agriculture. This is already a challenge, but has been added a new one, the world is facing a serious climate change, a health and economic crisis. It is no longer sustainable to create models for its own sake, the current situation has put humanity in front of the reality of interdependence and the need to be proactive. It is not enough to produce clean energy, we must also consider the side impact of our choices, the effect of the structures that we are going to build have on the environment, such as the “foot print”. What will happen when they are dismantled? Under what conditions will the land be used? Sustainable models such as Agrovoltaico®, are a coherent and systemic response, as the intention that undersees them is not simply: “not to be a problem”, but to be part of the solution.
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