By: Abby Neff, AmeriCorps VISTA

According to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in the U.S. Department of Energy, Agrivoltaics is the use of land for both agricultural and solar energy production. Ground-mount solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, also known as those big, shiny panels that look like they fell out of space, are installed on land used only for solar energy production.

So, although renewable, solar energy benefits the solar industries, it can cause land to become obsolete for agricultural purposes.

“Agrivoltaics is more of a process than an actual thing,” Jess Fritz, Rural Action’s Sustainable Energy Director, said. “It is a large solar installation, or a ground-mounted solar installation, but it is designed to allow some sort of agricultural activity to take place underneath the panels.”

Rural Action hosted an On-Farm Solar workshop back in February 2022, where farmers, producers and community members met to discuss solar farming and the prospect of agrivoltaics. At the workshop, agrivoltaics was described as the practice of co-locating solar with agricultural practices. This is done by raising ground mounted solar panels off the ground to allow for crop growing, animal grazing or a pollinator habitat below them. Agrivoltaics have benefits for both the solar panels and the land below them.

Fritz said with agrivoltaics, the solar panels are spaced out and lifted higher off the ground, so there is room for sunlight to penetrate below and around the panels.

“There could be space, for example, for grazing animals, which also cuts down on your mowing needs; you don’t have to mow in between the panels because the sheep or the cows do it for you,” she said.

A Solar Futures Study published by the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy found that solar energy could provide one terawatt of electricity-generating capacity by 2035, which is enough to power entire countries.

The study argued that although the land required to build these solar systems to generate that much electricity is only 0.3% of U.S. land area, “solar is likely to conflict with agriculture land use because the same attributes that make land appropriate for solar energy (plentiful sun, flat land) are also attractive for agriculture.”

“It can be a problem for a good piece of agricultural land to be covered in solar panels and therefore taken out of the food chain. It’s no longer producing food,” Fritz said. “Some farmers are getting offers for their acreage to build solar panels on them, and a lot of times these leases are way more lucrative than any crop they could grow on their land.”

Fritz said that although there may be more money in leasing to solar developers, a farmer usually likes being a farmer and wants to continue doing that.