Image: Autonomous solar-powered agricultural robot Element, courtesy of Aigen.

Another New Twist On Agrivoltaics: Friendly Solar-Powered Farm Robots

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The idea that farming can coexist with solar panels is embodied in the new but rapidly growing field of agrivoltaics. The concept has already been taking off in all sorts of different directions with specially designed racks that enable farming to take place between solar panels. In the latest twist, the panels are no longer fixed to the ground. Instead, they are mounted on busy autonomous robots that travel around the fields, weeding and analyzing as they go.

Agrivoltaics On The Move

Agrivoltaics is the solar industry’s answer to critics who argue that solar panels take valuable farmland out of service. It can, but agrivoltaics offers an alternative. Researchers are finding that a solar array can double as a productive area for livestock grazing and pollinator habitats, at minimum.

With some fancier tweaks, row crops can be grown between solar panels. Shade from the panels creates a cooling micro-climate that conserves soil and moisture, and protects crops from excess heat.

The potential for a ripple effect on agricultural employment is also coming into view. One example is the US Department of Agriculture’s Emerging Farmers program, which has expanded to its scope to explore how solar arrays can create new opportunities for more farmers to work the land.

Another new development in the agrivoltaics field is the use of mobile solar arrays that can be rotated around different fields. The Dutch consortium H2arverster, for example, has come up with a mobile solar system aimed at producing green hydrogen as an extra revenue generator for farmers.

Friendly Solar Robots For Chemical-Free Farming

The robotic weeding angle surfaced on the CleanTechnica radar last year, when we noted that the US startup Aigen received $4 million in seed money to develop its signature product, the Element. The solar-powered electric farm vehicle is described as a “robotics platform for agriculture and soil regeneration,” aimed at reducing, if not eliminating, the use of chemicals and fossil fuels to grow food.

The regenerative angle refers to a set of principles derived from indigenous farming practices that conserve and improve soil health. That includes enhancing the ability of soil to trap and sequester carbon.

“Regenerative techniques have been lingering on the fringes of Big Ag for generations. A sudden burst of interest in carbon sequestration has improved the bottom line benefits of investing in soil regeneration, which explains why leading players in the global agriculture industry are suddenly pricking up their ears,” CleanTechnica observed in December of 2022.

“Agriculture is among the few industries that have the potential to operate profitably in carbon-negative mode,” explains Aigen co-founder Rich Wurden.

“Agriculture is the intersection of human health and planetary health and that’s why we focused on creating technology for farmers that is both profitable and sustainable,” adds co-founder Kenny Lee.

$12 Million More For Solar-Powered Robots

CleanTechnica is not the only one to notice. On November 9 of this year, Aigen garnered an additional funding pot of $12 million, aimed at scaling up its fleet in time for the 2024 growing season.

Participating in the new round of funding were ReGen Ventures, New Enterprise Associates, Cleveland Ave, Incite, and Susquehanna Private Equity Investments. The list of other backers includes Bessemer Venture Partners, Global Founders Capital, Industrious Ventures, E2JDJ, and AgFunder.

“To date, Aigen has successfully demonstrated and integrated all critical technologies to solve farmers’ most urgent problem: eliminating herbicide resistant weeds at scale. With a total $19 million raised, Aigen is building a 7,500 sq ft manufacturing and R&D facility to manufacture their solar-powered robotic fleet,” Aigen explained in a press release.

They better act fast. According to the company, they have received enough pre-orders to send fleets of Elements over 20,000 acres of farmland to tackle weeds and collect data.

“Aigen’s Element robotic fleet can autonomously navigate, weed, and analyze row crops without any chemicals or diesel fuel,” Aigen explains. “Offered as a service and powered 100% by solar and wind, Aigen’s vehicles reduce farmers’ workload and their reliance on fossil fuels, while increasing their crop and soil health.”

Farmers interested in hiring a fleet of Element robots better act fast, too. Last summer, AgWeek reported that the initial 2024 run of 100 Elements is already spoken for, as well as 500 Elements scheduled for production in 2025.

The Agrivoltaics Revolution Is Just Beginning

As Wurden notes, the machine learning technology deployed by Aigen practically did not exist just a few years ago. That’s another demonstration of the speed at which new technologies have the potential to release the global economy from an unsustainable dependence on toxic chemicals and fossil fuels.

The field of agrivoltaics itself also demonstrates how farmers can ally with the solar industry to accelerate the energy transition and steamroll over the opposition to rural solar development.

That alliance can be a game changer for solar adoption. A recent study by the EU Joint Research Centre, for example, found that the EU could gain about 944 gigawatts in solar capacity from agrivoltaics development on just 1% of the farmland currently in use. By way of comparison, the total installed solar capacity in the EU in 2022 was about 211 gigawatts.

JRC also notes that the figure of 944 gigawatts is only about half of the estimated 1,809 gigawatts the EU could develop with conventional solar arrays, but it easily surpasses the EU’s solar strategy goal of 720 gigawatts by 2030.

India is another agrivoltaics hotspot to watch. A multi-organization effort called the India Agrivoltaics Alliance launched in in October, described as “a first-of-its-kind collaborative platform attempting to streamline low-carbon energy development with efforts to improve socio-economic outcomes in the agriculture sector.”

“Agrivoltaics…is being touted as a new renewable energy pathway for India. This is significant given India’s net-zero commitment by 2070, with some experts suggesting that nearly 20% of India’s 500 GW RE target by 2030 will have to be met by deployment of Agrivoltaics, especially to address issues of land-water-energy-food security,” explains senior specialist Shweta Srinivasan of the India Climate Collaborative., which partnered with the National Solar Energy Federation of India to establish the Agrivoltaics Alliance.

The organization is tasked with assembling a cadre of stakeholders in the service of agrivoltaics, including “industry associations, farmer groups and producer organisation, research institutes, financial institutions like NBFCs, policy think tanks, and other civil society organisations.”

The initial focus will be on pilot projects in Jharkhand, Maharashtra, and similar states aimed at addressing high costs and other obstacles.

In yet another sign of growth and expansion in the agrivoltaics field, PV Magazine recently reported that the leading Chinese battery and solar firm BYD has developed a new solar panel for agrivoltaics at its facility in Brazil. The new panel deploys bifacial technology with a transparent backsheet, enabling the panels to do double duty as fencing or greenhouses.

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Image: Autonomous solar-powered agricultural robot Element, courtesy of Aigen.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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