Agrivoltaics: a world of innovation for the future of farming
Agrivoltaics combines energy production with agriculture in an innovative solution for a sector feeling the full effects of global warming. Backed by the government, this approach boasts outstanding potential to create value for everyone involved as well as providing inspiration and incentive to innovate. Here’s an update from André Joffre, founder of the independent engineering design office TECSOL that is now assisting more and more farmers in this initiative.
André Joffre, founder of the independent engineering design office TECSOL
What is agrivoltaics and how did it arise?
When tackling global warming, the emphasis is more often on rising temperatures than on increased sunshine. And yet sunshine in the South of France has increased 10–15% in 40 years. There is no way this can be innocuous, especially in agriculture. Wine growing in particular is very much affected by this phenomenon. Grapes are sweeter, wines more heady, with ABVs that used to be 12% now reaching 15% in many regions. But that’s not all. Heatwaves can cause water stress, damaging vines. We must either change grape varieties or provide shade to simulate the climate of 50 years ago. Agrivoltaics is a way of implementing the second of those solutions while providing spin-offs. By installing photovoltaic canopies over the vines, not only is the fruit protected but usable energy is produced to offset equipment costs. It’s a win-win situation. Solar is the future of farming!
That’s great for viticulture but does it work for other growers?
Not all, but still quite a few, like market gardens and orchards. For some crops the gains are even higher. Delicate crops like asparagus will be protected from cold nights by PV canopies, which act as an infrared screen that absorbs cold and keeps the soil at a mild temperature. The asparagus grows faster and can be harvested up to a month earlier. That’s quite a competitive edge in this market.
What about poultry and livestock farming?
Yes of course, these can benefit too. In the Gers department, we helped a duck farmer install PV canopies to give shade to their birds. The excess energy produced raised enough money to renovate and restructure their buildings and bring them up to health and safety standards. Please note that ground-level solar farms do not count as agrivoltaic as the emphasis is on energy production, not on protecting the sheep who are there primarily to maintain the ground. PV barns, however, are definitely agrivoltaic! Work and storage spaces can be built while recovering costs. Also note that the concept is not one of producing a windfall but of balancing the books.
How do energy sales by farmers work in practice?
Until recently, grid operator EDF was obliged to purchase up to 100kW (roughly 1000 m² of photocells) of a farm’s energy production. The maximum power for a farm is now being raised to 500kW (5000m²), so a lot more farms are going to be interested. Procedures will be streamlined, quotations will be dispensed with. Farmers will deal through a single gateway that buys their energy at a state-regulated price. This opportunity will give a kick start to agrivoltaics and facilitate their contribution to the government’s defined energy objectives.
France wants to triple the yearly expansion of solar power installations, and agrivoltaics are all set to be a major beneficiary of this growth. With this in prospect, regional farming boards have taken the lead in assisting farmers in the development of solar projects.
How have photovoltaic companies reacted to this development?
The government’s latest tender operation on “innovative solar & photovoltaics” has provided an entry point for agrivoltaics. The shortlisted projects are all connected and smart. They will result in remote control installations to optimize farm produce and energy production. There are two big issues at stake here: agriculture, essential to the nation’s self-sufficiency in food, and renewable energy production, essential to the energy transition. And when technologies converge, value creation for all parties ensues. We are witnessing the emergence of a world of innovation.
Photo credit : © Sun'Agri