The Alberta government’s Aug. 3 announcement of a seven-month pause on renewable energy development in the province has received significant criticism.
The exact reasons for this decision are debatable. However, there is a genuine concern among some members of the governing party and the public that industrial solar projects may displace farming. This could lead to increased food prices and potential issues with abandoned equipment.
Fortunately, a new concept called agrivoltaics provides a solution that benefits both agriculture and energy generation.
What is agrivoltaics?
Agrivoltaics involves placing solar panels above food crops. An agrivoltaics system not only generates electricity but also creates a favourable microclimate for the crops.
While it may seem counterintuitive, numerous studies from around the world have shown that partially shading crops with solar panels can actually increase crop yields.
This is particularly advantageous for Alberta’s ruling United Conservatives. Agrivoltaics offers a straightforward resolution to the complex debate between agriculture and energy production in the province.
The energy landscape in Alberta is rapidly changing, with solar energy experiencing exceptional growth and becoming a “gold rush” in the region.
Alberta has emerged as a leader in solar development in Canada, generating substantial revenue and employment opportunities in the solar industry. However, concerns exist that this solar boom may result in higher food costs, environmental damage, and additional cleanup expenses similar to those experienced in the oil and gas sector.
The conflict between solar and agriculture regarding land use has long been a topic of concern for solar researchers. However, research conducted in the United States has revealed that agrivoltaics offers greater economic productivity, energy production, and food yields.
Consequently, the US Department of Energy is investing millions of dollars to ensure the country’s dominance in this field.
According to one US study, pepper production increased by more than 200% when pepper plants were placed underneath solar panels. Similarly, a German study showed that agrivoltaics boosted wheat production (although by a more modest amount).
In Canada, agrivoltaics is already being practiced, primarily by integrating sheep grazing between solar panels on marginal land. The inaugural North American agrivoltaics conference took place last year at Western University in London, Ontario.
Agrivoltaics presents an opportunity for Alberta’s farmers to continue their agricultural endeavors, increase revenue, reduce energy costs, and contribute to environmental conservation. Globally, agrivoltaics has emerged as a burgeoning market that is set to reach a value of $9.3 billion by 2031.
A study conducted by Western professor Joshua Pearce reveals that Alberta only needs moderate modifications to its regulatory structure to fully capitalize on the profit potential of agrivoltaics.
The key lies in installing solar systems that coexist harmoniously with conventional farming practices. This allows sufficient space for farm machinery to navigate between solar rows.
By using vertical racks or tracker systems, agrivoltaics can be easily accommodated when farming operations require space. Pearce conducted another study that found that Alberta’s agrivoltaic potential is second in Canada, surpassed only by Saskatchewan.
Agrivoltaics has garnered widespread acceptance. Farmers and solar developers appreciate the steady income it offers, while environmentalists support its reduction of CO2 emissions.
Pearce’s research indicates that dedicating less than 1% of Alberta’s agricultural land to agrivoltaics could completely eliminate carbon emissions originating from the electricity sector. This finding is all the more remarkable given that 89% of Alberta’s electricity is currently generated from fossil fuels.
Agrivoltaics makes the Alberta renewables moratorium unnecessary. The Alberta government should lift the moratorium and promote large-scale agrivoltaic projects in the province.
By doing so, all individuals, regardless of their political affiliation, can appreciate conserved nature, reduced electricity expenses, and increased food production per acre.