by Brooks Lamb
Across Kentucky, the South, and the nation, tensions are rising between agriculture and solar energy. On one hand, farmers and rural communities are trying to keep land open and agriculturally productive. On the other, renewable energy advocates and developers are advancing solar infrastructure, and they’re often aiming to site new arrays on farmland.
These tensions suggest an impasse. It seems that communities must choose between fuel or farming, climate or conservation, renewable energy or rural economies. But there’s another way forward. With care and foresight, we can help increase renewable energy infrastructure while maintaining irreplaceable farmland.
For starters, we should prioritize solar infrastructure in the built environment. That means locating solar panels on residential, commercial, and industrial rooftops and along highway interchanges and exits. It means building elevated arrays over parking lots. We can also site solar development on “brownfields,” or degraded land that has been reclaimed for a new and productive purpose. These steps are important, and they help make up some of American Farmland Trust’s principles for “smart solar siting.”
That said, data suggests that some solar infrastructure will still impact agricultural land. In these cases, strong decommissioning plans must be put in place to protect landowners once an array reaches the end of its lifespan. Care must be taken to protect soils during and after construction. And where possible, farmers and developers should consider an innovative approach to installing solar infrastructure and continuing agricultural production: agrivoltaics.
Agrivoltaics, or “dual use solar,” combines agricultural production and solar energy generation on the same land area. Although this land use system is still relatively new and limited in scope, it’s generating interest among farmers, elected leaders, and solar developers alike.
I first started digging into agrivoltaics in early 2021, when a friend and I decided to explore the topic through research. Our differing perspectives—he’s a solar developer, and I’m an agrarian—allowed us to understand the issue from various angles, and our friendship helped us navigate some of the frictions between farming and solar. We co-wrote a report on agrivoltaics that was published last fall.
Truth be told, I am highly skeptical of new technology in agriculture. I think it has frequently done more harm than good. And I’m wary when someone describes a situation as a “win-win,” knowing that the picture is usually far more complicated than it seems. Agrivoltaics isn’t a perfect system, but I do believe it can generate significant benefits.
Let’s consider how an agrivoltaics array may work in practice. Imagine a field covered in solar panels. But instead of cramming panels in as tightly as possible, picture the panels spread farther apart. Envision them lifted higher off the ground than in a conventional array, allowing more sunlight to pass to the earth underneath. These design adjustments make it possible to farm under the panels. Some farmers and researchers have grown crops in these systems. Vegetable production, in particular, has worked well in certain settings. More often, farmers graze livestock under the panels. In most cases, that means raising sheep. Unlike goats, sheep are less likely to jump on and damage panels, and they’ll be less inclined to gnaw on wiring. And unlike cattle, sheep aren’t large enough to bend or break equipment by leaning or scratching against posts. (That said, some agrivoltaics arrays have successfully incorporated cattle. If further proven, this approach could be intriguing for a wide swath of farmers.)
The setup described above would lead to less energy generation than a traditional array. Although spreading panels out and lifting them higher off the ground can lead to cooler and more efficient panels, the fact remains that fewer panels generate less electricity.
In that same vein, an agrivoltaics array will often lead to less agricultural production, too. Some studies have shown comparable crop yields—and even yield increases for certain forages, especially because shading from panels helps soils in these systems retain more moisture during drought periods than soils in unshaded areas—but producers may experience a drop in production.
These individual reductions notwithstanding, studies have suggested that the overall production of the land area can actually increase. In an agrivoltaics array, for example, we may see 60-80 percent of the energy generation of a traditional array. Perhaps we see 60-80 percent of the amount of agricultural production generated in an open field. Yet added together, the overall dual production could reach 120-160 percent for the land area.
The report my friend and I co-authored describes some of the environmental, ecological, and agricultural benefits that can be generated by agrivoltaic systems. We discuss financial benefits, too. These economic advantages may be particularly appealing for farmers. Although there are alternative approaches to solar development, solar companies often lease land from farmers or landowners to host their arrays. Lease rates can be substantial. If a farmer were able to receive a solar payment while still being able to farm under and around the panels, they could perhaps make their farm more financially viable. The steady income from the solar lease may help them provide for family, focus more on farming rather than work additional off-farm jobs, or provide the funds needed to improve farm infrastructure (such as repairing barns, installing new cross-fencing, or buying needed equipment). This agrivoltaics approach is preferable to covering their entire farm in a traditional array, and it’s far better than seeing the ground paved over for real estate development. American Farmland Trust’s “Farms Under Threat” research shows that the latter phenomenon has compromised (and could continue to convert) millions of agricultural acres across America and hundreds of thousands of farmland acres throughout Kentucky alone.
There are kinks to be worked out in the realm of agrivoltaics. Array designs could be improved, policy could be strengthened, research could be deepened, and localized examples could be expanded. But there’s potential here. And if nothing else, that potential is worth exploring.
In Kentucky and beyond, agrivoltaics could help provide a path for rural communities to produce solar energy while supporting agriculture. That path could be good for all involved—as long as it’s pursued with care and with the well-being of local communities in mind.
Brooks Lamb, Program Associate & Special Assistant to the President at American Farmland Trust