Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.

Dual Harvest: Agrivoltaics Boost Food & Energy Production in Asia

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Every autumn morning at an aquaculture site near the mouth of the Yellow River in China’s Dongying City, Shandong Province, farmers begin packaging shrimp for their customers. Their harvest is increasingly more bountiful thanks to an innovative way of farming that integrates renewable energy into agriculture.

Here, solar photovoltaic (PV) panels were installed several meters above the water, helping to generate an annual 260 gigawatts-hours of energy — enough to power 113,000 households in China. Since its completion and grid connection in 2021, the farmers have also gained many benefits.

Beyond providing clean energy to the fishery, the solar panels keep water temperatures consistently 2 to 3 degrees C (3.6 to 5.4 degrees F) cooler than outdoor ponds without panels, boosting shrimp and sea cucumber yields by 50%. The solar power company that installed the panels leases the space, helping to reduce farming costs while also paying for improvements and modernization to aquaculture site, such as better pond embankments and irrigation systems.

These developments are crucial for the future growth of the fishery industry in Shandong Province. In 2019, the total economic output of the fishery sector of Shandong Province reached $62.3 billion, representing 15.6% of China’s total fishery output.

Agrivoltaics Boosts Clean Energy & Food Production

The concept of aquaculture-photovoltaic integration is a form of what’s known as agrivoltaics, which typically integrates traditional agricultural practices such as crop cultivation, livestock farming and fisheries with solar PV installations, maximizing the use of available space. This dual-layered system supports the normal production of both food and electricity, thereby allowing income to stream in from both sources.

In a world where global energy demand is soaring and the use of agricultural land for food production is increasingly displaced by renewable energy projects (such as for solar and wind farms, or growing crops such as corn and soy for biofuels), agrivoltaics has emerged as a win-win solution for sustainable energy and agriculture.

This concept has already been applied throughout the world, including Europe, the United States and parts of Asia.

China’s pioneering efforts since 2011 with more than 500 agrivoltaics projects — including crop cultivation, livestock grazing, aquafarming, greenhouses and tea plantations — according to a forthcoming WRI report, provide significant insights for further expansion across the region.

For example, countries like Indonesia and the Philippines in Southeast Asia could potentially benefit from agrivoltaics but have yet to implement many significant projects. The region’s abundant sunlight and vast agricultural landscapes can harness solar energy while maintaining crop production. There’s also an outsized need in the region to balance its land resources for both clean energy and food production in the face of a growing population and urgency to reduce emissions.

Solar photovoltaic panels rise above an aquaculture farm in Dongying City, Shandong Province, China. The panels, which not only produce enough energy to power 113,000 houses, help cool temperature waters which has helped to boost shrimp and sea cucumber yields by 50%. Photo by WRI China.

 

The Symbiotic Benefits for Food and Energy Production

In the land-scarce central and eastern regions of China, agrivoltaics emerged after government policies encouraged the development of PV projects, but the same land was needed for food production. So, companies integrated these projects together.

People soon realized that the solar panels could do more than just produce electricity. The panels can offer plants and animals protection from extreme heat and drought by providing partial shade. Studies also indicate agrivoltaics can reduce water evaporation by 30%. Accompanying upgrades to agricultural infrastructure, which can often contribute to the automation and mechanization of the farm, may also help to increase crop yields, especially in areas with excessive sunlight and high temperatures.

The benefits extend to the solar panels as well. Studies show that solar panels mounted over vegetation exhibit considerably lower surface temperatures than those mounted over bare ground. This cooling effect has a direct impact on the solar panels’ efficiency, as modules typically experience efficiency losses ranging from 0.1% to 0.5% for every degree Celsius increase above 25 degrees C (77 degrees F).

Agrivoltaics can also offer farmers an additional income stream either by leasing the land to solar PV companies or, if the land-agreement is reversed, through cultivating the land at much lower costs, mitigating the impact of fluctuating crop yields and market prices. For example, these leasing agreements provide farmers with a consistent and foreseeable income from the land and obviate the need for farmers to fund the solar installations themselves.

Beyond economic benefits, agrivoltaics can enhance energy independence and reliability. Agrivoltaic systems contribute to decentralized renewable energy generation, which reduces reliance on centralized power grids, especially in rural communities. The development and maintenance of agrivoltaics systems also creates employment opportunities in rural areas — stimulating the local economy and fostering sustainable livelihoods. Furthermore, the co-location of solar panels with agricultural activities optimizes land usage, promoting efficient utilization of renewable energy resources and minimizing land-use conflicts, which have historically taken place after farmland was diverted for renewable energy projects.

Lessons from China’s Agrivoltaics Projects

Examples of agrivoltaics, like a greenhouse project in Hainan and a livestock grazing project in Inner Mongolia, are among the many projects in China that offer invaluable lessons for Southeast Asia and other regions seeking to harness the potential of agrivoltaics.

Hainan’s Photovoltaic Greenhouses

In Hainan, China, photovoltaic greenhouses combine solar panels with farming, enhancing crop growth and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by providing clean electricity to power grids. The solar companies lease land for solar PV project development and simultaneously provide it at no cost to agricultural companies for vegetable cultivation. This approach not only conserves land-leasing expenses, but also ensures year-round production, unaffected by adverse weather, such as typhoons and rainstorms. Current PV greenhouse projects with a total capacity of 2 GW in Hainan are capable of supplying leafy vegetables to around 3 million people, covering about 30% of the province’s population, throughout the year.

Inner Mongolia’s Photovoltaic Livestock Grazing Projects

Inner Mongolia’s 1 MW photovoltaic livestock grazing project was established through government grants and private herder investments, pioneering a blend of renewable energy and traditional pastoral practices. This 1 MW solar PV power station, with land leased to a livestock company, generates revenue from electricity sales to the grid, which is distributed as dividends to herders based on their ownership stakes. The annual return rate to herders is 20%, while the rest of the revenue is used for the local community’s infrastructure development.

This successful pilot project has encouraged more herder involvement in PV grazing projects in one of the sunniest regions in China. The grassland area of Inner Mongolia reaches 48.7 million hectares (730 million Chinese mu), accounting for 41% of the total land area in the region and about a fifth of China’s pasture area. Its annual solar radiation is 2,164 kilowatt-hours per square meter, according to the Global Solar Atlas and local government leaders. This makes Inner Mongolia one of the most valuable solar energy regions in China.

Livestock are shaded by the solar panels installed above this livestock grazing project in Inner Mongolia, China. Dividends from the land leased to a solar energy firm have provided income to the herders and the local community. Photo by WRI China.

Potential for Expanding Agrivoltaics in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia presents a rich tapestry of opportunities for implementing agrivoltaic projects as well as some challenges. The installed solar capacity in Southeast Asia has already been growing consistently. For instance, in 2023, the solar market in Southeast Asia expanded by 17% compared to 2022, with 3 GW of new installations. This is complemented by a strong pipeline of projects that could significantly enhance the region’s solar capacity, indicating a robust future for solar energy development.

However, the successful implementation of agrivoltaic systems in Southeast Asia faces several challenges. Progress in the region is hindered by the convoluted policy framework and the need for strategic land-use planning. In addition, countries like Philippines and Indonesia, which are archipelagic countries, require technology and policies specific to the local politics, the pivotal role of village cooperatives and landscape.

Some measures to address these challenges could include:

  • Policy Alignment:  A unified policy framework, like what’s observed in France and other countries, could help streamline permit processes and recognize the multifaceted value of agrivoltaics.
  • Local Government Engagement: The active involvement of local governments is crucial for the successful rollout of agrivoltaic projects. Drawing upon the experiences of countries like China, where local government leadership has been instrumental in agrivoltaics success, the Philippines and Indonesia can foster partnerships and alignment between urban developers and local leaders. These partnerships could help catalyze the growth and acceptance of agrivoltaics at the grassroots level, ensuring that projects align with local needs and priorities.
  • Strategic Land Use and Capability Development: Given the relationship between agriculture and solar energy in agrivoltaics, specialized research for each region is essential to gauge the optimal configurations between varied crops and solar installations. Moreover, a detailed case-by-case basis strategy, tailored to the specific conditions and objectives of a country and its investors, is crucial for the successful and sustainable deployment of these systems.
  • Community Cooperation and Ownership: Building upon the Indonesian model of village cooperatives, early and consistent engagement with local communities, coupled with a keen understanding of their needs and aspirations, can foster trust and a collaborative spirit. By intertwining the project’s goals with community aspirations, stakeholders can effectively navigate challenges and uncertainties, ensuring that agrivoltaics bring shared benefits to all parties involved. Community ownership and engagement are paramount.
  • Capacity Building and Technical Support: Empowering local stakeholders with the necessary technical knowledge is also important for the long-term sustainability of agrivoltaic systems. Addressing the technical support challenges, especially in far-flung areas, is vital. Establishing regional technology hubs or partnering with educational institutions could help. Such collaborations could not only reduce technical response times, but also elevate the broader understanding of distributed technologies in these regions.

 Achieving a Bright Future for Agrivoltaics in Asia

Agrivoltaics offers a promising solution to the complex task of harmonizing energy production and agriculture. By drawing inspiration from China’s experiences and customizing strategies to the local context, this approach could help drive economic growth, promote sustainable energy and deliver environmental benefits.

Realizing the full potential of agrivoltaics will require collaboration, policy alignment and capacity building. But if successful, agrivoltaics can help pave the way to a more sustainable and prosperous future.

Chen Jing, a postdoctoral researcher at Tsinghua University’s School of Social Sciences in the Energy Transition and Social Development Research Center, contributed to this article.

By Jose Gabriel Silan, Shengnian Xu, and Marlon Joseph Apanada, Article courtesy of WRI.

Images courtesy of WRI China. Featured image courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.


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