The Agrovoltaic system, solar energy encounters agriculture

Posted on 08/08/2012, in: Better World
The Agrovoltaic system, solar energy encounters agriculture

Production of solar energy and agriculture. What do these two activities have in common? Well, first of all, nature: one uses the sun to create electricity and the other uses soil to produce food. That’s not all though, they both occupy an amount of land that varies according to requirements but, unfortunately where solar panels are installed it is impossible to cultivate anything because they create too much shade and do not permit crops to grow well. But are we absolutely sure that it is impossible? A group of Italian entrepreneurs asked themselves the same question, and reached the conclusion that it is possible… with the Agrovoltaic system.

The Agrovoltaic system that makes it possible was designed by R.E.M. (Revolution Energy Maker), a company based in the Italian province of Brescia that produces systems for generating energy with the use of sustainable and zero emission technologies.
In order to guarantee enough sunlight for the soil R.E.M. has designed a system of adjustable solar panels suspended from poles, which are about 5 metres tall and set 12 metres apart. Thanks to this set up farm vehicles are able to pass below the panels and the shading of the soil is never more than 15%, thus permitting the cultivation of crops.

The panels, controlled by wireless technology, rotate on their axis following the movement of the sun and, in this way, maximizing their production of energy. And that’s not all, when it rains or snows, or in any case when it is thought to be necessary, the panels can be positioned perpendicular to the ground.

Agrovoltaic systems have already been installed and are operative at Virgilio, in the province of Mantova, and there are two in the province of Piacenza, one at Castelvetro Piacentino and the other at Monticelli d’Ongina. Another plant is under construction at Marcaria, again in the province of Mantova; it will cover an area of 25 hectares in which vegetables and other products to be sold directly or locally will be grown.
As far as the energy produced is concerned, in the plants at Virgilio where 15 hectares of ground are used to grow cereals and animal fodder, 2.15 MW are produced, while at Monticelli the 21 hectares used for wheat reach 3.2 MW.

Despite the enthusiasm for such innovative technology some have however turned their noses up, asking whether a system of this kind really doesn’t create problems. The two principle topics of criticism of the Agrovoltaic system are:
The presence of electromagnetic fields just above the fields cultivated could be harmful for the production of vegetables and wheat.
- The shading that, even though reduced, may not help the ideal growth of many vegetables.

We asked for clarification on these matters directly from R.E.M.: they explained that “a study has been carried out regarding the presence of electromagnetic fields and the distances to be maintained. The results show that the effect of the electromagnetism is negligible and of short duration because the electricity cables installed are stranded and braided (therefore completely insulated) and at a height of 5.5 m above ground, with an electromagnetic impact that is practically zero.”

As fare as the shade is concerned, “compared to the methods currently used in agriculture that create shade, the relationship between that produced by the Agrovoltaic system as 2.3 times lower than with tunnels, 3.9 times less than seed beds and 5.5 time less than photovoltaic greenhouses.”