Somebody Needs To Tell Ohio Farmers About Agrophotovoltaics

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In the digital age, information is supposed to be free. In theory, what someone knows in Kenosha can become known to someone in Kinshasa within nanoseconds. The internet connects all human brains into one online organism so all that intelligence can be focused on finding solutions to the issues that confront us all. If that is so, why do farmers in Ohio not know about agrophotovoltaics — the disruptive technology developed by Frauhofer Institute in Germany?

farming and renewable energy

Several years ago, Fraunhofer began experimenting with mounting solar panels high enough above the ground to permit conventional farming beneath them. By doing so, they found the productivity of the land was increased by 60% compared to what it would be if devoted solely to farming or solely to solar energy production.

In an op-ed piece published by the Washington Post on May 23, Gary Abernathy writes of the coming renewable energy revolution in rural Ohio where he was a newspaper editor for many years. He writes with great passion about how farmers in his part of that state are struggling with new economic realities. A proposal is under active consideration to install 1.5 million solar panels on 5,000 acres of former farmland, creating the largest solar power plant in the state.

“Small family farms have been on the decline for decades,” Abernathy writes. “In his 2012 book, A Family Farm: Life on an Illinois Dairy Farm, author Robert Switzer noted, ‘In 1900, 42 percent of the U.S. population lived on farms; by 1990 that number had dwindled to less than 2 percent.’ The trend has continued thanks to rising costs and growing debt, coupled with decades of stagnant crop prices and the move toward mass production on corporate mega farms. Plus, fewer sons and daughters are interested in continuing the family tradition, making the lure of per-acre prices well above market value offered by solar companies too tempting to turn down.”

About 30 families have decided to convert their farms from agriculture to solar panels. At a recent public meeting, “most offered the frank explanation that the deals they were offered were a financial lifeline not only for them, but for their children and grandchildren. Among those opposed to the projects were neighboring farmers who are worried about lower property values, soil contamination issues, and the loss of the region’s farming tradition. Plus, some said, they simply don’t want to wake up every day to the sight of thousands of solar modules in fields side by side with their crops.”

The angst those families feel is understandable. What is not understandable is why they believe they are forced to choose between the culture they know and the economic rewards of renewable energy. How is it possible that no one in the Ohio farming community and none of those solar developers knows about the Fraunhofer technology? Does the internet not function in Ohio?

If these farmers were offered an opportunity to continue working the land that has been in their families for generations and create additional revenue from solar panels as well, isn’t that something they would want to know more about? Frauhofer has expanded its agrophotovoltaics to South America and Southeast Asia with excellent results. Is there some reason this technology would not be adaptable to Ohio? Are farmers there too committed to their conservative ways to consider some newfangled idea from Germany?

I think the answer is no. If given the chance to learn there is a way to profitably combine farming and renewable energy, economics would quickly overwhelm any lingering ideological issues. As soon as this story gets published, I am sending a link to Gary Abernathy in hopes he will share it with those in his circle of influence.

I am nobody from nowhere and I know farmers have a better choice  than continuing to struggle making a living or selling their birthright to solar developers. Heck, for the price of a plane ticket and some modest lodgings, I will gladly fly to Ohio myself to spread the word about agrophotovoltaics.

Farmers deserve a break from the crushing demands of Big Agra. They deserve a chance to thrive doing what they love. Let’s get busy spreading the word about how solar and agriculture can peacefully co-exist to the Ohio farming community. What do you say, Mr. Abernathy? Are you in?

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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