What do the sun, flocks of sheep, cabbages and sweet potatoes, parking lots, farms and poisoned land all have in common? Together, they can be a big part of the world’s zero-emission energy production and the answer to a sustainable, carbon-free future.
Let’s start with the sun and the energy it delivers to Earth. There is no doubt that harnessing energy from the sun’s rays is the future. Solar power is generated for free, and the technology to make it efficient already exists. However, with all its benefits, solar power does have a land use consideration: it requires a lot of space for its panels.

This issue can be addressed with creative thinking, which is where the farms, animals, parking lots, etc., come in.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Futures Study, a massive amount of land will be needed to reach the government’s goal of producing 40% of our country’s electricity via solar – about 15,000 square miles. It sounds daunting until you realize that’s just 0.5% of the lower 48 states – less than half the size of a small state like South Carolina, spread across the entire continent. There is plenty of land available: 43% of America’s contiguous land mass is used for agriculture, and another 8% is poisoned and largely unusable.

Agrivoltaics – Combining Agriculture with Solar Power
Dedicating pieces of active farmland for solar arrays, an arrangement known as agrivoltaics, is a win-win-win-win for farmers, solar companies, solar customers and the U.S. Thoughtfully installed solar can boost food harvests, reduce the need for irrigation, revive pollinators, restore soils and cool overheated animals—all while producing more power than conventional solar arrays.

Here’s how it works:

A farmer leases a portion of the land for a solar installation and receives guaranteed income for the next 25-plus years—a substantial fixed income for the high-risk, capital-intensive farming business. That area under and around the solar panels is used to grow shade-friendly crops (cabbage and sweet potatoes are the most popular), grasses for grazing animals (such as sheep) or pollinating plants that attract bees and other animals critical to our ecosystem.

Solar arrays and farmland form a symbiotic relationship in which the crops cool the surrounding air during the day, cooling the panels and helping them generate electricity more efficiently. The panels also inhibit evaporation and heat loss, allowing the shaded plants to use less water. A 2019 study by the Universities of Arizona and Maryland found crop yields as much as quadrupled beneath solar panels and dramatically reduced their water consumption while the solar installations operated more efficiently.

When Alder Energy develops community solar farms that don’t incorporate animal grazing or row crops, we plant pollinator-friendly native grasses around our solar panels so that the landowner may reclaim the property for agricultural use at the end of the lease and get back land that has rested and been improved.

A study at Oregon State University found that putting panels on approximately 1% of all agricultural land would generate as much energy as the entire world uses today, and it wouldn’t diminish the amount of food being grown.

Something to keep in mind is if animals are the pairing you’re considering for your solar panels, it’s essential to plan accordingly. Cows and sheep are typically the best animals to keep on solar panel land. However, cows take up more space than sheep and can potentially cause damage to solar panels if there isn’t enough room for them to coexist comfortably. Consider a smaller grazing animal or crops if you’re worried about potential damage to solar panels.

Many Places Can Host Solar Farms

But farmland isn’t the only source of space for large-scale solar installations. Brownfields and other contaminated land ordinarily pose challenges for reuse but can contribute positively to the environment when employed as photovoltaic hosts. That is a case of turning a problem into a social good.

Solar panels don’t necessarily require land. Via floatovoltaics, solar arrays can be built to float on bodies of water. The water cools the panels during the day, increasing their efficiency and simultaneously cooling the water, reducing algae growth in reservoirs and retention ponds.

Another great solar farm opportunity is those expanses of asphalt we set aside to park our automobiles while shopping or at work. Installing photovoltaic panels above vehicle height in parking lots provides shelter from the elements for parked cars and power to neighboring businesses and homes. They can even power up charging stations for electric vehicles, making the EVs truly zero-emission.

A Time magazine analysis found that covering half of all U.S. parking lots with solar canopies would generate most of the government’s decarbonized electricity goal for 2035.

The common thread among all the site solar panel locations is how they provide monetary and social benefits to everyone involved – and everyone not involved too, as we wean ourselves off the polluting energy sources contributing to climate change.
Not sure which solar solution is right for you? Contact an Alder expert today for more information, or check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

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