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Renewable Energy Growing Among Crops and Cattle

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Jane Marsh's picture

Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy and more.

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  • Apr 6, 2021

As the climate crisis continues to grow, so does the demand for renewable energy. It’s increasing as humans deplete the earth of fossil fuels and similar power sources. Thankfully, there is still plenty of land that can be used for clean energy farms.

Farms cover about 900 million acres of land in the United States. What if farmers could use some of it in conjunction with renewable energy? Some of them are. As solar farms become increasingly popular, more agricultural businesses and family farms are implementing agrivoltaics on their properties.

Renewable energy flourishes among crops and cattle. Farmers are seeing how well this works, and the trend is spreading, allowing this industry to boom.

The Growth of Solar Energy on Farms

Over a decade ago, the dream of combining solar and traditional farms became a reality. Agrivoltaics research began in 2008 at the University of Massachusetts Crop Research and Education Center. In 2010, Dave Marley, a construction company owner, partnered with the university to build the first solar farm.

Flat farmland proved to work better than the solar farms built on concrete or white rock. The grass and soil beneath didn't radiate heat back to the panels, ensuring 100% energy production. Plus, there was more available space to install the panels rather than on rooftops of farm buildings.

Now, this dual-use of farmland is spreading. More farmers are seeing the benefits of adding solar arrays to their land.

How It Works

How do you use the land for both farming and generating electricity? Technicians install solar arrays so they're lifted off the ground, allowing crops to grow and cattle to graze beneath. Solar panels are about 8 feet above the ground. Instead of the typical gravel or turf placed beneath solar panel farms, there are natural, growing plants and animals.

Typically, solar panels can only be installed as long as there isn't a need for harvesting machinery. Most of the plants growing beneath solar panels should be harvested by hand or used solely for pollination.

The Added Benefits of Solar Among Crops and Cattle

There are advantages for both farmers and those working in renewable energy when agriculture and renewables combine.

Benefits for Agriculture

Solar panels provide respite for livestock on hot days. When cows graze in open fields, there is an increased danger of heat stress if there aren't shaded spots. Solar panels provide a place of comfort and rest to ensure cattle stay safe and healthy.

Additionally, plants thrive beneath solar panels. Although they aren't exposed to the sun all day, they still get plenty of sunlight. Even when weather conditions aren't ideal for plant growth, the panels provide a source of protection when the sun's rays are particularly harsh or when strong winds blow. Plus, native plants have done well beneath solar panels, providing an excellent food source for pollinators.

Farmers who implement solar onto their farms also could benefit from an added income stream. Their energy costs will drastically reduce as well.

Benefits for the Renewable Energy Industry

The renewable energy sector also benefits from adding solar panels to farms. Upfront, the costs of installing solar on agricultural properties are much lower because the land is already disturbed. Environmental inspections are required before solar panels are installed in other places. Since farmland is already in use, though, the risks of potential harm to the environment decrease.

Energy production from solar panels is much more efficient on farms, as well. Typical solar farms use rock or another form of synthetic material as the base below the panels. Those materials tend to reflect heat to the panels' underside, which reduces energy production because of the increased heat.

Increased solar production on farms will help neutralize their carbon emissions, making the environment cleaner and healthier.

The Future of Renewables and Agriculture

Just as crops and cattle grow on farms, renewable energy does, too. The practice of agrivoltaics continues to gain in popularity. There are multiple benefits for the agricultural and renewable energy sectors when the two are combined. Perhaps in the future, all farms will produce both food and energy.


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