It’s called agrophotovoltaics: putting solar panels on stilts above cropland and allowing farmers to gather energy while they grow crops. In experiments in Vietnam and Chile, it’s working pretty well.
The method puts solar panels in rows above farm fields. The panels are high enough to let animals and farm equipment pass below, with enough space between the rows to allow sunlight to reach the plants.
When Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute came up with the idea and tried it nearby, it found that the land’s economic productivity rose an estimated 60% beyond what it would have been, had the land been used only to grow crops or just to make solar power.
Encouraged, the Institute set up a series of test plots in Chile. On a farm growing broccoli and cauliflower, the solar electricity will be used to clean, package, and cool the produce. On another plot, the power will be used to warm an incubator to hatch chicken eggs, while also sharing the excess electricity among seven families.
In Vietnam, the solar panels were raised over the ponds of a shrimp farm. The panels make electricity and shade, keeping workers cooler while lowering the water temperature, which helps the shrimp grow faster.
The test sites also can sell leftover power back to an area’s electrical grid, if one is present.
Fraunhofer will closely monitor the test plots for three years, but early indications are that the results will probably be similar to the first experiment in Germany.
Making energy and crops from the same tract of land doesn’t just make farming more profitable. It also reduces competition for valuable, arable land. Additionally, having home-grown electricity makes it cheaper for farmers to consider setting up secondary, value-added operations on site, such as for making jams and other products from crops grown under the panels.