Energy Plus Agriculture

All human endeavors have some impact on the environment be it good, bad, or otherwise. This is especially true when it come to power production. Relatively cheap and available power has transformed the human landscape. Life expectancy more than doubled since the advent of the industrial revolution begun late in the 18th century. The cheap power aided agriculture by greatly increasing productivity and reducing the threat of starvation. Less demand for agricultural labor freed the attention of others to expand an understanding of health care.

However, the negative impacts of the utilization of fossil fuels – coal, oil, and gas – are legendary. In December, 1952 a combination of weather conditions and pollutants from coal smoke killed thousands of Londoners. Oil slicks on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio frequently caught on fire throughout the 1960s. Re-injection of fracking wastes from the production of natural gas has been blamed for recent earthquakes. And then there is global warming and climate change which threaten the planet.

So, power is good, but power from fossil fuels is not so good. The obvious answer is power without the negative impacts imposed by fossil fuels. All the alternatives have some negative impacts but in aggregate, are an improvement.

An interesting combination of technologies is referred to as agrivoltaics, the pairing of agriculture with solar panels to increase farm income. The results from studies here in the United States and Australia are quite surprising.

At first blush one would think that putting solar panels on a pasture would produce energy from the solar panels but the shading would decrease forage production. A study in Australia found just the opposite. Properly spaced and elevated solar panels actually increased forage production. Partial shading was not a significant issue, but the presence of the solar panels reduced loss of soil moisture.

At the same time that the panels help agriculture, agriculture helps the panels. Transpiration of the biomass under the panels lowered the temperature around the panels and increased solar electric output.

An unanticipated benefit was found in a study in Oregon. Panels installed on a pasture on a sheep farm greatly reduced predation of lambs by eagles. The panels provided shelter from eagle strikes.

In a related vein, the marriage of solar panels and water bodies is synergistic. In arid lands evaporation from a reservoir is significant issue. Placing solar panels on pontoons close to the water’s surface reduces evaporation and as before, the cooling effect of the water increases energy production.

Even without the benefit of increased energy production, solar panels can be beneficial. Rooftop systems reduce exposure of homes to harsh weather. Or how about decking over asphalt parking lots? The shade provided will help cool the lot and at the same time provide electrical energy to perhaps charge electric vehicles while the owners shop.

With forethought, energy production from solar panels can be enhanced and simultaneously provide beneficial effects to land use.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

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