The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture recently conducted research to assess the current and projected use of land in Tennessee for large-scale solar energy production. The study also considered the potential effects of solar power projects on farmland.

The study, titled “Assessing Land Use for Utility-Scale Photovoltaics (Solar Panels) on Farmland in Tennessee,” concluded that Tennessee can save farmland through a practice called agrivoltaics.

The State of Solar Energy in Tennessee

According to the researchers, the existing utility-scale facilities in Tennessee generate 1.4 GW of energy and necessitate between 8,197 to 14,743 acres of land. This is approximately 0.056% of the state’s total landmass or up to 0.137% of its agricultural lands. Most of these solar facilities are located in western Tennessee.

Last year, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a federally owned utility, set a goal to achieve up to 10 GW of solar power by 2035. TVA serves a territory spanning seven states, covering 80,000 square miles and providing electricity to 10 million people.

Although some of the 10 GW solar expansion could come from small-scale and rooftop installations, Tennessee lacks the necessary support for distributed rooftop solar systems. As a result, the state’s solar development will primarily consist of large-scale projects initiated by corporations pursuing environmental and social governance objectives.

TVA’s operational and contracted solar capacity grew by 77% in FY 2021. By 2024, TVA anticipates having approximately 2.8 GW of solar power in operation.

According to the Tennessee study, an additional 10 GW of solar power would require an additional 55,600 to 100,000 acres of land. If this solar capacity was solely concentrated within Tennessee, it would represent approximately 0.21% to 0.38% of the state’s total landmass or 0.52% to 0.93% of its farmland.

The Benefits of Agrivoltaics

When considering large-scale solar installations, exploring the possibility of using the same land for both agriculture and solar energy production, known as agrivoltaics, becomes an option. 

The University of Tennessee study examined the decrease in farmland area in Tennessee due to urbanization. The study found that the reduction amounts to approximately 9% of the state’s farmland. This loss is primarily attributed to population growth, which is expected to continue. 

Besides reducing the need for farmland, agrivolatics offers other powerful benefits, including reduced water usage in crop production. 

One challenge in implementing agrivoltaics on existing farmland is that electrical infrastructure like substations and power lines may require enhancement. Even still, the evidence indicates that combining farming operations with solar power generation can lead to increased productivity and cost savings.

The University of Tennessee study received financial assistance from the Tennessee Solar Energy Industries Association. 

The ability to combine agriculture and energy production is yet another reason why the time has come to embrace solar energy.