#112 Show Notes | Agrivoltaics: The Future of Farming & Renewable Energy

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#112 | Agrivoltaics: The Future of Farming & Renewable Energy

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I don’t know how I’ve gone this long without hearing about today’s topic. I try my best to stay up to date on the latest conservation news and scientific findings, but somehow this subject never popped up on my radar until it literally came to me. One day out of the blue, Rewildology received a DM from the Solar Farm Summit, inviting me to attend their conference on March 13-15th in Chicago. I knew I couldn’t make it to Chicago in mid-March, but their message piqued my interest enough to look into their work, and just like that, today’s episode was born.

I have now read countless articles and scientific papers, and watched at least an hour’s worth of YouTube videos. What good would it do to keep all of this information to myself? For today’s solo episode, I want to take you down the agrivoltaics rabbit hole that I explored and what it could mean for the future of renewable energy and food production. 

Photovoltaics AKA Renewable Solar Energy

Agrivoltaics or agriphotovoltaics is the combination of two concepts: agriculture and photovoltaics.

Photovoltaics is the mechanism by which sun energy is converted into electricity.  Our sun spews around 1.5 × 10^9 TWh of energy to Earth every year, and as our energy consumption currently stands, humans use about 1.6 × 10^5 TWh in the same time span. Thus, the sun gives us 10,000 times more energy than we need every year. 

It just makes sense to take advantage of this natural, clean, and available resource, you know? Scientists had this same idea decades ago and introduced us to solar panels. In the past decade, solar panel technology has become more efficient and costs have decreased five-fold. If we convert around 0.1% of Earth’s surface into solar fields (or the total size of Spain), then we’d meet the world’s energy demand. 

Say what? If a total land mass the size of Spain could mostly decarbonize our energy supply, then why hasn’t this happened? Well, as I’ve said so many times on this show, nothing in conservation or sustainability is cut and dry.

While the price of solar panels has decreased significantly over the years, they’re still a lot more expensive than simply plugging into the current energy grid. It costs the average household in the US around 20,000 to install solar panels, for a yearly savings of 5-15% in a family’s energy bills. To help individuals that want to go green, the US government offers a 30% tax credit for systems installed after August 2022. For large solar farms, it costs around US$1 million per megawatt, which is enough energy to power around 164 homes. By acreage, it’s around $400,00-$500,000 per acre. These are serious chunks of money. No to mention installation, labor, maintenance, and disposal costs. 

Public perception and environmental impact are also important factors. Precious habitat is being cleared to install solar farms, and some communities simply don’t like the look of rows of solar panels near their homes. 

As the human population grows and more homes are built to accommodate growing families, where do you put 195,000 sq mi of solar panels? 


Agriculture is one of the greatest inventions in human history, and arguably one of the most important advancements that’s led to modern-day society.  Through agriculture, we’ve grown our population to over 7 billion people with no end in sight. That’s an incredible feat. Think about that for a second. Our ability to manipulate plants, animals, earth, and water has made us the most dominant species in Earth’s history. Wow.

However, our current food production systems are wrought with issues. Over 30% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are from food production and related processes. Agriculture is also the leading cause of tropical habitat destruction and has been shown to have negative effects on water quality and local biodiversity, plus inefficient use of precious water resources. Additionally, 30% of the food that is produced across the globe is lost as food waste. 

To make matters worse, farming is dying at an alarming rate in countries like the United States, one of the world’s food-producing powerhouses. Between 2011 and 2018, over 100,000 farms shut down across the US, with over 12% of farms in the Midwest and 50% in the Northwest filing Chapter 12 bankruptcy. Technological advances, globalization, climate change, and trade wars have created the perfect storm for farmers. Suicide in the farming community is on the rise and many are selling their family land and walking away from the field altogether.

The human population is projected to grow to 10 billion by the year 2050, which will require a 70% increase in our agricultural output. If small-to-medium scale farming is dying, then how are we going to nourish future generations and keep those employed that want to feed their community?

Enter today’s topic and a potential solution to all of the issues I just mentioned and so much more – agrivoltaics.


What is agrivoltaics?

Instead of competing for acreage, agrivoltaics brings together two land-intensive fields: agriculture and photovoltaics, essentially marrying food production and renewable energy to solve pretty much all of the issues I just explained in detail.

How exactly does agrivoltaics do this?

An increasing amount of research is being conducted around the globe exploring the productivity of shade-tolerant plants grown underneath solar panels and the results are super promising. Turns out solar panels do not like to get hot, ironically, and the transpiration from plants growing underneath cools the panels down significantly, thereby increasing their efficiency.

Also, plants can only absorb so much sunlight, and if they’re exposed to too much sun, then they’re likely to shrivel and die from too much heat and water loss. Strategically installing panels over top of the plants helps buffer heat stress by protecting plants from the midday sun and by trapping water in the soil beneath. 

It gets better. I read about and watched at least four separate studies that each found significant increases in crop productivity on fields with agrivoltaics versus control fields that were managed under standard agricultural practices, and the same for energy output for solar panels that were coupled with crops. Amazing!

It gets even better. Since the crop yields were higher and the solar panels produced more energy, the overall economic value of farms with agrivoltaics was significantly higher than agricultural fields, or solar fields alone. So, according to the studies published thus far, crops and solar panels are a match made in heaven.

Technology in the field is progressing, too. Agrivoltaics companies, like Sun’Agri, have been developing AI algorithms that tilt and rotate solar panels above crops to maintain goldilocks conditions for both the crops underneath and for sun absorption above. Transparent solar panels have also been developed to help with light control, and can even be shaped similarly to a greenhouse.

Oregon State University calculated that if 1% of US agricultural lands were converted to agrivoltaics, then we’d meet our yearly renewable energy targets. Countries all over the world are also seeing the potential of agrivoltaics and, combined, thousands of projects have been installed in China, Japan, and South Korea. Furthermore, experiments are being conducted in Italy with climate-sensitive grape vines, the crop responsible for our beloved wine. Lord knows we can’t give up wine, and agrivoltaics might help ensure that we don’t lose grape vines to climate change.

What’s the catch?

But, you’re probably wondering, what’s the catch? Why am I not seeing agrivoltaics everywhere? To be honest, there isn’t a good reason why agrivoltaics hasn’t caught on like wildfire.

As alluded to in the photovoltaics portion, the initial startup costs for an agrivoltaics field are not cheap and could be cost-prohibitive to smaller farms. To work around this, farmers now have the ability to partner with agrivoltaics companies with the option to lease their land to the company without having to buy the equipment themselves.

This has its own set of issues, of course. Farmers, understandably, only tolerate a certain percentage of their crop being lost, so if they have a bad harvest due to the installation of solar panels, then they could be in trouble for the year. Also, ownership is a big deal to several farmers, and it’s reasonable to assume that some farmers are not okay with someone else having control over their land, regardless of the opportunity. 

And, let’s face it – renewable energies are not welcome by all communities, and pushback can make local governments gun-shy about moving regulations forward.

Continuing on local regulations, many of our laws are outdated and don’t take into account the progress we’ve made as a society. I watched an interesting video about a farm in Boulder Country, Colorado, that wanted to install agrivoltaics on their land. Since his permit only allowed farming activities, he had to fight the local government to have codes changed so that he could install agrivoltaics on his own land. Luckily, Boulder County agreed to the changes, and now he’s a fully functioning agrivoltaics farm, and is teaching young farmers how to do the same.

With new renewable energy targets, advancements in technology, an increase in food demand, and the need for more efficient freshwater usage, agrivoltaics might be the solution we’re looking for. Keep an eye out for an agrivoltaics farm wherever you live and send us all a photo in the Rewildologist Facebook group. I haven’t personally seen one in action, but you bet I’m going to keep my eyes out and will certainly share with all of you.


And there you have it! An exploration of the emerging field of agrivoltaics.

This episode marks the two-year anniversary of the show and I couldn’t be more excited and blown away that we’ve reached this point. Two years and 112 episodes. That’s a lot of freaking hours of content on the airwaves. Next month, we are celebrating our very own Women in Conservation Science month, with new female scientists, as well as highlighting many incredible women that have already been on the show. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite streaming at, and/or the Rewildology YouTube channel, and follow us on social media to celebrate with us.

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