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Powering up farms - NY funds agrivoltaics research
New York Ag Connection - 02/09/2024

Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) is embarking on a groundbreaking initiative to explore agrivoltaics, the innovative combination of agriculture and solar energy production. This research program, funded by a $1 million grant from New York State, aims to address a critical challenge: harnessing renewable energy while preserving valuable farmland.

Three key approaches are being studied:

• Pollinator-friendly plantings around solar panels to support biodiversity.

• Animal grazing beneath the panels, maximizing land utilization.

• Dual-purpose land use, growing crops alongside solar energy production.

Leading the research is Ph.D. student Henry Williams, who emphasizes the focus on crop production beneath solar panels. He cites the successful sheep grazing project at the Cascadilla solar farm as a starting point for this new research direction.

Professor Max Zhang, a pioneer in agrivoltaics research since 2018, acknowledges the inherent challenge of balancing the needs of both crops and solar panels for sunlight. However, he sees immense potential in this approach, especially as solar energy use continues to rise globally.

Concerns about aesthetics are acknowledged by Jeff Bielicki, an expert from Ohio State University. He raises the potential impact on rural landscapes and the need for careful consideration of visual aspects.

Ithaca College is actively exploring agrivoltaics and its potential applications. Scott Doyle, director of energy management and sustainability, sees this research as valuable for informing their own renewable energy initiatives. He also highlights the potential of floating photovoltaics as an alternative solution.

New York State's commitment to this research is evident in the grant provided to Cornell and its ambitious goal of achieving 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040. Senator Michelle Hinchey emphasizes the importance of agrivoltaics in balancing renewable energy needs with the preservation of local agriculture.

The research is still in its early stages, with plans for collaborating with CALS on crop trials to identify optimal crops and suitable climates. Additionally, field data will be collected from existing solar farms to refine models and optimize designs.

Overall, this initiative represents a significant step towards reconciling the need for renewable energy with the vital role of agriculture. By exploring innovative solutions like agrivoltaics, we can create a more sustainable future that benefits both the environment and our food systems.

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