“We want to create training and employment opportunities for the coming generations”
Ms Brasche, SUNfarming has already been developing agri-PV plants for almost 20 years. What makes the concept so interesting for you?
All across the world, agri-solar plants can considerably contribute to energy and food security. The raised solar plants generate renewable energy on farmland while fruit and vegetables or even grapes for wine can be cultivated below them. Livestock can also be kept in pastures with agri-solar systems, where they are protected from the weather or attacks by birds of prey. Especially in countries with high solar radiation, where climate change is increasingly destroying harvests, agricultural solar plants – also known as food & energy plants – can help secure harvests and minimise famine. Farmland and livestock grazing thus receive multiple benefits for agriculture, energy production, and animal welfare, but also to provide an economic and social base for people to live in regions they would otherwise have had to leave in the wake of climate change impacts.
So it’s a holistic concept …
Yes – very much unlike the ground-mounted solar plants, which generate renewable energy in a one-dimensional way, but cover or even seal the land, ruling out any further use.
What do your plants feature?
The plants’ steel substructure is rammed straight into the ground, and only the transformers stand on concrete foundations, resulting in less than two per cent of the ground being sealed. The tables for the modules are mounted on pillars, with the lowest point of them at a height of 2.10 m and the highest at 3.60 m. The semi-transparent double glass modules have a light transmission of 15 per cent. The mounting profiles for the modules serve as a rainwater distribution system underneath. They are designed to evenly distribute the rainwater under the module tables. Together, these two aspects protect the soil from erosion and promote optimum plant growth. In addition, the modules are resistant to hailstorms and can also withstand cyclones, as our plants in the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic and Madagascar have proven for many years.
Is 15 per cent of daylight sufficient for the plants to thrive?
Yes, because the 15 per cent goes straight through the modules and additional light comes in from the sides of the module rows; plants sensitive to light or those requiring an especially high amount of sunlight cannot be cultivated so well below them. That is why we are concentrating on growing vegetables, herbs and fruit, which works very well.
You set up the first Food & Energy plant in the Global South in South Africa in 2012. What was important to you in this context?
A main part of our concept is to integrate the people in the areas where we build our plants. You always need to involve the local people and see what their needs are. Most countries want to have renewable energy, but in most cases there are more fundamental things on the priority list – education, unemployment, water and food shortages. Within our Food & Energy concept, we can provide appropriate countermeasures for all these challenges. With our partially shaded systems equipped with water-saving drip irrigation, food is produced with minimal water use, with the harvest protected by the structure even in extreme weather conditions. Our plants are operated in cooperatives by local people who have previously been trained by us.
What exactly does this training look like?
With our subsidiary SUNCybernetics, we have created a recognised and certified training programme for electricians and community service staff as well as people from poorer rural areas. In cooperation with regional educational institutions, certified trainers train people on site in the planning, installation and operation of solar plants as well as sustainable agriculture. This train-the-trainer principle promotes knowledge transfer and thus creates access to education and training in the respective region. Various programmes have been developed for this purpose, lasting between four and twelve weeks; the trainees are selected via local scouting processes in cooperation with local cooperation partners as well as cooperating NGOs.
You also collaborate with universities for this purpose …
In 2014, on the Potchefstroom Campus of North-West University in South Africa, we set up a SunFarming Food& Energy Training centre. It serves both as a production unit and a nodal point for interdisciplinary research and development projects with the University’s agriculture and electrical engineering departments as well as with external partners from the food sector. Currently the Potchefstroom plant consists of three greenhouses with netting areas, where together with vegetables – tomato, cucumber, cabbage, spinach and others – and medicinal herbs such as artemisia annua being grown, sustainable energy is generated by means of roof-integrated photovoltaic modules. The facilities are also being used for research purposes and nurseries to identify what kind of crops can be grown best under the structure. The Training Project provides knowledge transfer in train-the-trainer programmes for master trainers and students. Moreover, workers from local communities are trained as foremen in special food production under greenhouse conditions and gain a basic knowledge in PV solar production. Around 500 trainees are being trained each year, and so far, roughly 4,000 people from all over the country have been trained. In addition, 3,600 kilograms of food is produced there each year.
Greenhouses with roof-integrated photovoltaic modules at North-West University's Potchefstroom Campus in South Africa. Vegetables and medicinal herbs are cultivated in them. Photos: SUNFarming
What about women’s participation?
Around half of the trainees are women. We want to give them the opportunity to become self-employed in agriculture and thus generate a – second – income for their families. To achieve this, local companies in the food production sector are also involved. The women are also trained in energy production, but primarily in sustainable agriculture.
South Africa is a popular cooperation partner regarding renewable energies. Does the concept also work in other countries?
It does, although the focus of course varies according to local needs. For example, our Food & Energy facility in Turkey has been producing food with refugees from the neighbouring camp since 2019 and supports the development of social contacts between the refugees and the local population through joint business activities that focus on the sale of products from fruit and vegetable cultivation and poultry farming. The initiative thus contributes to a better integration of people and to the sustainable maintenance of livelihoods. In Madagascar, the products grown under the agri-PV plant are intended primarily to ensure the survival of the bitterly poor population, providing them with healthy food and medicinal herbs to strengthen their immune system.
You mentioned the drip irrigation system – is it also part of your offer?
Yes, we develop the respective irrigation systems in addition. For this purpose, we take a look at the individual local water situation, at what cultures are grown, etc. In Madagascar, for example, we are at the moment developing a second plant for which our engineers have worked out a special water management concept.
Agri-PV plants are more expensive than ground-mounted solar plants. How are they financed?
Via our company’s own investments and also in co-financing schemes with development cooperation funds from the German Federal Government, with the aid of international development banks or also internationally operating charitable organisations campaigning for climate protection and food and development cooperation. Furthermore, we closely work together with the respective governments of the countries in public-private-partnership projects. The F&E Centre in Potchefstroom, for example, is a partnership with North-West University and the Deutsche Investitions- und Entwicklungsgesellschaft, DEG.
What about the economic viability of the plants?
In economic terms, the green electricity generated and fed into the national grid must be remunerated at a rate of at least 0.10 eurocents per kilowatt-hour. However, the remuneration is often much lower – if it is granted at all. The minimum purchase price has been calculated to ensure that with a subsidy of around 350,000 euros from the communities or the government, we can create up to 24 new jobs and 50 training places per megawatt-peak (Mwp) of plant output and year.
And what if there is no guaranteed purchase?
If the countries are not bankable, in other words, if government guarantees of payment of renewable energy are not recognised by international financiers as secure and not accepted, then the holistic plant concepts can only be put into practice by private investors purchasing the electricity at the minimum purchase price. These are companies who want to achieve CO2 neutrality and energy security independently of government grid infrastructures or that are seeking to produce green hydrogen or ammonia with renewable energy or ammonia together with us and make it available to the European market.
Given your experience in different countries throughout the world, what are the biggest problems you face in implementing the schemes?
Now and then, major investment ventures fail because of a lack of financial feasibility in politically unstable countries or also owing to the monopoly position of the grid operators, who are usually government-run, which block the feed-in of renewable energy in order to use their grids for fossil energy, which they generate, for example, with obsolete power stations. Here, we would very much desire changes in the framework conditions and having the opportunity to feed agri-PV electricity into the grids. Even in African countries in which blackouts are part of everyday life and renewable energy could be optimally generated with agri-solar plants and wind power, ventures are thus delayed or even rendered impossible. And of course, in addition, there are countless regions without any grid infrastructure. Here, agri-solar plants operating independently from the grid could not only secure power supply for companies or even entire villages but could also safeguard agricultural yield below the plant.
Have you got an example of this?
One example is the installation of a Food&Energy system with a rated power of 13 kWp to supply electricity to a small outpatient health clinic in the community of Suwareh Kunda in The Gambia. This facility was constructed in March 2022 and is equipped with a battery storage system and a backup generator. On average, the plant produces more than 56 kWh per day. Most of this goes directly into the operation of the health station. During the day, the surplus electricity is used to charge the battery storage system, which even covers the energy demand during peak daytime hours or when solar yields are poor during the rainy season. To make the system fail-safe, a 6 kVa diesel generator is also available as an emergency generator, which is automatically switched on when demand is high or the battery charge is low. In the dry season, the area under the solar modules is used as a chicken coop or to provide shade for the staff and patients, while in the rainy season, local vegetables are grown there.
What is local acceptance of the F&E plants generally like?
As a rule, both the governments and the locals are very enthusiastic because they can see for themselves that the plants provide a solution to many of the existing problems. But of course they can also see the cost – and understandably, they try to lower them by awarding contracts to the most favourable bidders in calls for bids. Of course, a standard ground-mounted PV-plant can be built at a very low cost – and it may work for some years. Our agri-solar plants have a guaranteed life span of at least 30 years. We try to convince the regions and local communities that it makes more sense to invest a little more but in return get a high macroeconomic effect. We want to create training and employment opportunities for the coming generations with sustainable agriculture and energy production.
How do you assess the prospects of agri-solar plants for the future energy mix in the Global South?
I see enormous potential here. Due to the strong solar irradiation and the simultaneous high availability of arable and pasture land, for example in sub-Saharan Africa, large solar parks can be developed which, when coupled with existing wind energy parks, can make the use of electrolysers significantly more economical than in Europe. In South Africa or Brazil, for example, green hydrogen can be produced much more cost-effectively than in Germany. If ammonia is produced on site from green hydrogen, a solid energy carrier with high economic potential is created that can be used as a chemical feedstock, as fuel in shipping or for stationary power generation plants. Both Brazil and South Africa are currently in the process of developing large marine terminals as hydrogen hubs for loading ammonia to ship the locally produced ammonia to customer markets, including Europe. Biomethanol, on the other hand, which is also produced from green hydrogen and preferably green CO2, such as from sugar cane production, can not only store green hydrogen, but also significantly reduce CO2 emissions from road transport as a biofuel.
SUNFarming and FEED
Founded in 2004, SUNfarming GmbH is seated in Erkner, in Brandenburg, close to Germany’s capital of Berlin. This family enterprise with its own research and development department operates in 15 countries and has so far installed roughly 1,300 PV plants with an output of 650 MW. In 2020, company founder Peter Schrum initiated the charitable association Food, Education, Energy & Development, reg. Ass. (FEED). Donations are used to train people from the South African townships in cultivating fruit, vegetables and medicinal herbs below agri-solar plants for their own needs but also for regional sales. The medicinal herbs are sprinkled into a pre-cooked maize porridge and processed as “Vitality Porridge”, which is then handed out to school and kindergarten children. Every day, more than 15,000 children join the Vitality Porridge meals; in 2022, over 600 women were trained in sustainable agriculture by FEED in cooperation with partners in South Africa.
More information: www.sunfarming.de ; www.feed-ev.de
Edith Brasche is Managing Director for Project Development of the SUNfarming Group for German and international projects. Previously, she worked for a business consulting group for 25 years, where she was a member of its board of directors.