Unlocking the potential of agrivoltaics
Agrivoltaics is a concept based on dual land use, where a single area is used both for agricultural production and photovoltaic (PV) power generation. Although first mentioned in 1982, development has gained momentum only in recent years. As of 2021, there are 14 gigawatt-peak (GWp) of installed capacity world-wide. In agrivoltaic systems, PV panels are mounted on a substructure on the agricultural land and generate sustainable electricity, while agriculture production takes place underneath or between the PV module rows. When installed above, the increased height of the installation provides enough space for farming activities underneath. This has many potential advantages, including higher land-use efficiency as well as shading and physical cover provided by the panels altering the microclimate and protecting crops and soils, possibly leading to higher crop yield and quality. A field trial conducted by the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Germany has shown that the simultaneous use of land can increase land-use efficiency by up to 84 per cent (depending on the crop type) and can therefore be considered as a resource-efficient way of improving land productivity and enhancing food security.
The APV-MaGa project – combining traditional and non-traditional research
Most current agrivoltaic systems are located in the Global North, with the first pilot plant in Germany being installed in 2016. However, the potential for agrivoltaics in the Global South is extremely high as the potential advantages and opportunities could be especially significant in these regions (see Box below). Against this background, the APV-MaGa project (see Box at the end of the article) was launched in 2020. In its context, five agrivoltaic systems will be installed in Mali and The Gambia, two countries with which the project partners are already cooperating in the context of the water-energy-food nexus. Both of them are located in the Sahel Region, one of the areas most vulnerable to climate change, and at high risk of droughts. High solar radiation levels and the population’s dependence on agriculture put even more stress on the need for sustainable water management, especially with fertile arable land becoming increasingly scarce. Because of the increasing impact climate change is having on agriculture and growing energy demands, both countries need innovative and sustainable energy solutions and improvements in food security. The agrivoltaic systems are to provide food, water and electricity to local communities and simultaneously increase the resilience of the agricultural sector to climate change effects.
Water, energy, food, income: agrovoltaic’s potential
Over 759 million people, most of whom live in rural sub-Saharan Africa, do not have access to persistent and affordable electricity. In these rural, off-grid locations, agrivoltaics can provide access to electricity and thereby improve energy security. The solar electricity can be used directly for self-consumption on the farms, lowering the costs associated with use of alternative forms of energy (e.g. diesel generators), or used to provide energy services and thereby increasing income diversity.
In addition, globally, about 2.3 billion people live in water-stressed countries, and most countries in the Global South are not on track to fulfil the UN sustainable water management goals. Also, 72 per cent of all water withdrawals comes from the agricultural sector, demonstrating the need of increasing water-use efficiency. Agrivoltaics offer the option to integrate a system to collect rainwater from the solar panels; additionally, through the shading caused by the PV panels, water losses through evapotranspiration by the plants can be decreased. In this manner, water use can be lowered and collected rainwater can be used for a more efficient irrigation, such as drip irrigation or other farm-related purposes. This alternative water supply and water-use reduction can therefore reduce the overextraction of groundwater resources. Savings on irrigation costs, an increase of crop yield through drought protection, sale of electricity to nearby communities and higher income through improved crop quality are among the financial assets offered by agrivoltaics.
There are plans for the construction of one 200-kilowatt-peak (kWp) system in Mali by the end of 2023 and four smaller systems, up to 62.5 kWp, in The Gambia, by the end of the first quarter of 2024. While in Mali the system will be installed in the grounds of the Rural Polytechnic Institute of Training and Applied Research in Katibougou, the systems in The Gambia are intended to be set up at the University of The Gambia, a small private farm and two community farm sites. The mix of different farm types will allow both traditional scientific research, in which conditions are more strictly controlled, and non-traditional research, where community involvement will require flexibility in the scientific approach (e.g. local farming practices will be implemented, social interaction with the system will be considered, etc.). The photovoltaic (PV) modules are to be installed at a height of 2.5 metres to enable the use of farming machinery underneath the system and to obtain a higher energy gain from the used bifacial PV modules, which also generate electricity from their rear side. Some of the demonstrators include a rainwater harvesting system, with the rainwater being collected in a gutter between the modules and stored in tanks at a height of about five metres. Solar pumps will be used for the distribution to the target areas.
The electricity generated by the systems is planned to power supplementary equipment such as cold-rooms, post-harvest processing equipment and irrigation systems, which will be built as part of the project. The crops underneath the agrivoltaic systems are to include those already commonly cultivated by local farmers, such as onions, tomatoes, potatoes, okra and green beans, as well as high economic value crops that may not have previously been possible to cultivate because of the harsher climatic conditions, such as strawberry and broccoli. Research data will be collected and supplied by the local partners beyond the life of the project, providing long-term data, which is essential to accurately assess the impact of the agrivoltaic systems in the local climatic and socio-economic conditions.
What effects are expected?
Economically, multiple short- and long-term effects are to be expected. For instance, farmers’ income may be increased in general through the sale of higher yields and higher quality crops, as well as better timing of the market allowing crops preserved through cold storage to be sold at higher prices at times of high demand/low availability. Also, the more efficient irrigation and the increasing availability of self-generated electricity lower the expenses needed to run the farm. In the long run, additional income may lead to investments and enable the expansion to non-local markets. The additional equipment connected to the agrivoltaic system also allows farmers and farming communities to diversify revenue streams and increase income through the sale of services to the surrounding communities.
One important aspect of the project is the realisation of a community-based approach, especially in The Gambia. This has multiple implications, starting with an active communication with local partners and community members. Participatory schemes and acceptance studies are used to evaluate this exchange. Secondly, the project team plans group discussions with local farmers and other potential smallholders, to be able to understand and consider individual needs and ideas. Thereby, technical know-how and engagement of the farmers can also be integrated into the project. A co-design workshop with important stakeholders will be organised to ensure that the system is adapted to regional factors. The focus lies on developing a sustainable business model for the long-term success of the agrivoltaic systems. Additionally, a local organisation will be established in both countries to include financial stakeholders and community members in the decision-making process. These organisations will take care of the long-term maintenance of the systems.
The challenge of sustainable funding
While the project is still in its planning phase, funding has proven to be a significant challenge. One of the goals is to include local partners’ own financial contributions. The idea is to include both public and private funding and move away from the traditional model of donor funds with little input from local partners, as this often leads to long-term problems or failure of projects. In-kind contribution (labour, equipment, use of existing infrastructure, etc.) by the local partner is also considered a form of funding. But as APV-MaGa is a research & development project, it is hard to secure the investment of private companies. These conflicting interests between private and public funders require a lot of communication. The project aims to bridge the gap between these two interest groups for a new, more integrative and sustainable financing approach in accordance with the overall goal of the project. Based on their experiences with previous failed projects, the local partners agree that this approach could be a way to mitigate the problems and are therefore keen to also explore ways to secure their contributions, either in cash or in-kind.
While the potential of agrivoltaics for the Global South is high, much research data is still required. In the crop-farming sector, this applies to the impact of shading on the micro-climate below the PV modules, the subsequent effect on the crops and the most suitable crops that can be grown under these altered conditions. As the upfront costs of the systems may be a barrier to their wide-scale implementation in the Global South, further research is also needed on solutions that could reduce costs and/or provide a positive return on investment. Suitable finance and business models have to be examined, with some of them possibly being transferrable from other settings. For the African context, the models described e.g. by Horvath (“host-owned” or “community-owned”, but also “pay-as-you-go”, to name some) could be appropriate. The use of alternative construction materials (such as bamboo and wood) and material use-efficiency through innovations including the integration of rainwater harvesting into the substructure are further examples of current and future research focus. Higher upfront costs and uncertainty over the effect of shading on crops serve as the main points against agrivoltaic systems in the target regions. It is difficult to justify higher system costs, given the extremely low electricity access rates, while not all crops respond positively to shading and changes in micro-climate, hence crop yield could be reduced, rather than being increased. And last but not least, one of the key factors for the success of the system is to gain more insights on its acceptance among the local population.
Agrophotovoltaics for Mali and The Gambia: Sustainable Electricity Production by Integrated Food, Energy and Water Systems (APV-MaGa) was launched in August 2020. The four-year project is being funded by the German Federal Research Ministry in the context of “Client II – International Partnerships for Sustainable Innovations” and comprises 15 partners from research, politics and the private sector. It incorporates five agrivoltaic systems with a total capacity of between 400 and 450 kWp installed.
Henriette Stehr is studying Environmental and Sustainability Sciences in Freiburg, Germany. She is working in the Agri-PV Group at Fraunhofer ISE and belongs to a small team focused on agrivoltaic projects in Africa.
Nora Adelhardt is a researcher with a focus on development economics at the Wilfried Guth Endowed Chair for Constitutional Political Economy and Competition Policy at the University of Freiburg and a guest researcher at Fraunhofer ISE.
Brendon Bingwa is Project Manager in the Agri-PV group at Fraunhofer ISE and is focused on agrivoltaic research projects in Africa.
Susanne Wolf is a student of agricultural sciences and is currently writing her thesis at Fraunhofer ISE.
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