Electric farms use solar energy to increase profits and crops

(Bloomberg) – In many ways, Takeshi Magami’s farm is like any other in Japan, growing everything from potatoes to ginger and eggplant. But one major difference sets it apart from its neighbours: the 2,826 solar panels perched above the crops.

The signs, covering much of the one-hectare (2.5-acre) plot in the quiet countryside east of Tokyo, serve a dual purpose. They provide almost all of the energy needed to run the farm and provide an additional source of income by selling excess renewable energy to the grid.

For Magami, that can mean 24 million yen ($187,000) in additional revenue per year, eight times more than the maximum 3 million yen generated by its products. Although it enjoys generous tariffs which have since been reduced, it is an indication of the added value available to farms in Japan and around the world.

“Our goal is to electrify and automate all stages of farming” and create a model of what sustainable agriculture could look like, said Magami, 38, who operates the farm as part of his start-up Chiba Ecological Energy. Inc.

All of the machinery used on Magami’s farm, with the exception of the tractor and a hand-pushed tiller, are electric and charged by panels placed above a small shed. Rows of tool batteries are lined up on a shelf.

The farm is part of a global movement called solar sharing – or agrivoltaics – which involves the simultaneous use of farmland to grow crops and generate electricity. The movement is gaining adherents as the global push to replace fossil fuels encourages more innovative approaches to increasing renewable energy capacity.

Solar sharing is emerging as a viable alternative in places like Japan with limited space and a heavy reliance on energy imports. This can help stretch local energy production as countries increasingly seek to reduce their exposure to foreign supplies. Solar sharing is also useful in countries with harsh growing environments, protecting crops by absorbing sunlight and acting as a shield.

“We have seen many regions affected by climate change, and agrivoltaics could mitigate and make agriculture more resilient,” said Max Trommsdorff, head of the agrivoltaics group at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE. in Germany. “Small countries in the solar belt with large populations are where agrivoltaics is most urgent and most promising.”

Japan, which aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, has limited capacity for renewable energy due to its mountainous terrain. It is targeting 36-38% of its energy mix from renewable sources by 2030, with solar accounting for 14-16%. While Japan’s solar installations have grown over the past decade, they only supplied 8.9% of the country’s electricity as of fiscal 2020, according to Tokyo’s Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies.

This means that Japan will need more places for panels. The government is looking to rooftops, railway lines and airports, and the country’s vast tracts of farmland on flat plains offer a promising alternative.

But while Magami has demonstrated the success of solar sharing, the practice has not been widely adopted in Japan. Only 742 hectares were approved for agrivoltaic use between fiscal years 2013 and 2019, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, out of the country’s total agricultural land of 4.4 million hectares. in 2020.

Agrivoltaic is a tough sell for Japan’s elderly farming population. Many have no successors to take over the business and are unwilling to invest heavily in solar panels, which can take decades to pay off. It can also be a distraction from the activity of growing crops.

“Some people object because it ruins aesthetics or interferes with agricultural work,” said Chiho Egashira, an official with Japan’s agriculture ministry. It can be tedious for farm equipment to dodge posts that lift panels off the ground.

While solar panels may be an alluring prospect of additional income, the ministry wants to ensure that food security remains the priority. It has therefore put in place rules to guarantee production levels.

Magami says that despite the obstacles, the country needs to embrace agrivoltaics to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. He calculates that using solar panels on about 5% of Japan’s arable land, equivalent of 200,000 hectares, could generate 20% of the country’s production. energy production.

“Things like geothermal and hydroelectricity take decades to start working,” Magami said. “We are no longer in an era where the best way was to find available unused land and install it with panels. These have all been completed.

Other nations are making progress with solar sharing, especially in countries that face a similar lack of space. South Korea has targeted 10 gigawatts of agrivoltaic capacity by 2030 as part of its Renewable Energy 3020 plan. Taiwan is watching the program as it searches for available spaces for a renewable installation, according to Magami. Italy plans to invest 1.1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) in agrivoltaics to create around 2 gigawatts of capacity.

Large countries also have a significant presence. China, the world’s largest producer of solar panels, is home to the largest agrivoltaic system: a project covering 20 million square meters of land in the Ningxia desert. Of the 2.8 gigawatts of agrivoltaic systems installed globally, China had about 1.9 gigawatts of capacity in 2020, according to the Fraunhofer Institute.

Adoption in the United States varies, with more progressive states in the northeast launching government-funded projects, according to Mark Uchanski, an associate professor at Colorado State University who specializes in sustainable and organic agriculture. “People’s appetite is increasing,” he said. Agrivoltaics “is a perfect storm for wanting food security, energy and working towards emissions targets,” he said.

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