By Otis De Marie
In a groundbreaking endeavor spearheaded by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), a promising avenue toward attaining the European Union’s ambitious 2030 renewable energy objectives has come to light. Termed the “Overview of the Potential and Challenges for Agri-Photovoltaics in the European Union,” this study underscores the immense potential inherent in blending agriculture with solar energy generation, colloquially known as agrivoltaics or agrisolar.
The study’s principal revelation asserts that dedicating just 1% of the European Union’s agricultural land to agrivoltaics could usher in a staggering 944 gigawatts (GW) of peak capacity. This extraordinary statistic hinges on the assumption that an average of 600 kilowatts (kW) of solar panels can be deployed per hectare, representing a middle-of-the-road scenario.
For context, the European Union has set its sights on achieving 720 GW of solar power by 2030, measured in peak or direct current terms. As of the close of 2022, the installed capacity in this category stood at 211 GW, signifying that agrivoltaics could play a pivotal role in bridging the chasm to meet these renewable energy targets.
It’s worth noting that solar panels typically produce direct current, which is subsequently converted into alternating current for consumption or integration into the electrical grid. A point of significance lies in the fact that grid connection points often boast a capacity approximately 20% lower than the nameplate rating of the solar panels.
Eurostat data casts light on the expansive landscape of agricultural usage in the EU, spanning a colossal 157 million hectares in 2020. This encompasses 98 million hectares of arable land, 49 million hectares of permanent grassland and meadows, 10 million hectares of permanent crops, and 290,000 hectares of market gardens.
The JRC’s study quantifies the potential and delves into the benefits linked with agrivoltaics. While rooftop installations, urban areas, brownfield sites, and infrastructure can contribute substantially to solar capacity, an estimated half of the EU’s solar projects are poised to be ground-mounted systems within agricultural zones.
The report underscores the imperative to balance energy security with food security, keeping in view potential impacts on the landscape and the environment. Agrivoltaics offers a compromise solution, albeit accompanied by its own set of economic costs.
In agrivoltaic applications, solar panels are elevated on support structures, facilitating the cultivation of crops, grass, or fruit underneath while allowing the passage of agricultural machinery and livestock. This dual-use approach aligns with the burgeoning trend of concurrently engaging in agriculture and electricity production.
Agrisolar projects frequently encompass straightforward solutions, such as permitting cattle to graze amidst ground-mounted solar arrays, thereby reducing maintenance expenses and optimizing land use efficiency.
Nevertheless, a significant stumbling block to the widespread adoption of agrivoltaics is the absence of a clear and harmonized EU-wide definition. The installation of such systems could potentially alter land characterization, affecting eligibility for agricultural subsidies and taxation.
The challenges outlined in the JRC report encompass the imperative of maximizing electricity production without compromising crop yields, preserving biodiversity, promoting nature restoration, navigating intricate permitting and grid connection processes, and addressing apprehensions regarding surging land prices, which could impinge upon the livelihoods of farmers.