Growing Crops Under Solar Panels? Now There’s a Bright Idea

A warmer environment holds more moisture, which can lead to heavy precipitation. Protecting plants can be beneficial in times of extreme heat and extreme precipitation. Madhu Khanna, an economist from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who was also awarded funding through the USDA's new agrivoltaics grant, said that this can help to protect them. This is another thing we need to consider.
Khanna will examine what the best solar array for a particular crop might look like. For instance, Khanna may be determining if there are larger or smaller gaps between panels that allow sunlight to pass through. Also, height is an issue. Wheat and corn would require taller panels while shrubby soybeans could be fine with smaller ones.

These gaps ensure that crops grown on solar panels don't get soaked in darkness. The light is diffused, which means it bounces off surfaces before hitting the plants. This simulates a natural forest environment in which all plants except the tallest are shaded and soak up any sunlight that breaks through.

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Barron-Gafford discovered that plants respond to a forest-like shade under solar panels. Their leaves become larger when they receive more light than if they were planted in open fields. This would result in a higher yield of basil. Barron-Gafford also discovered that Capsicum annuum pepper, which is grown in the shade of trees, yields three times more fruit when it is grown in an agrivoltaic environment. Also, tomatoes produce more fruit. The reason is that the plants are less stressed by constant sunlight. This is not an evolutionary adaptation.

Every crop is different so scientists must test them all to determine how they respond to shade. Mark Uchanski, a Colorado State University horticultural scientist who is studying agrivoltaics, said that summer squash should not be planted directly in deep shade. We did not see any yield reduction in this case.

Although the installation of panels can be costly upfront, farmers might make some extra money by using them, Kominek explained to Grist in this 2020 article. The panels would produce enough energy to power the farm and the farmer could sell the surplus to a utility. Some plants, like the salsa ingredients in Barron Garcia's experiments, will require less water. This can help reduce irrigation costs. Khanna says that if farmers can diversify their production and get more from the same land, it can be a benefit. Solar panels are not the only thing that benefit the environment. Having crops in addition to solar panels is better for it.

This setup cools the panels in two ways. Water evaporated from the soil rises towards the panels and plants release their water. This is good for panels efficiency as they perform better when they are too hot. The sun's photons can knock electrons from atoms and generate electricity. However, if the panels get too hot, electrons become overexcited and don't generate as much electricity.