Japan would like to increase the amount of electricity it gets from renewable sources. According to Tokyo’s Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, it predicts that up to 38% of its electric power will come from renewable sources by 2030, but solar power only accounted for 8.9% of the country’s energy mix in 2020. This requires doubling to achieve its energy goals.
Japan has many mountainous regions that are not suitable for solar panels. One potential solution is called solar sharing – using land for both agriculture and solar power. One of the main proponents of solar sharing is Germany’s Fraunhofer ISE. The idea is simplicity itself. Mount solar panels high enough above the ground to allow plants to grow and farm equipment to operate below.
According to Yahoo finance, Takeshi Magami owns a one-hectare (2.5-acre) farm east of Tokyo. Like many of his colleagues, he grows potatoes, ginger and eggplant. Unlike many of those same colleagues, most of his arable land is covered in solar panels – 2,826 of them. They provide nearly all the energy needed to run the farm, where all the machinery except the tractor and a hand drawbar are electric.
Excess solar energy from the panels is fed back into the power grid and earns it 24 million yen ($187,000) in additional revenue per year. That’s eight times more than the 3 million yen ($23,500) he earns from the crops he grows. Although Japan has recently reduced the financial benefits available for selling electricity to the power grid, Magami still earns more from its solar panels than from growing its crops.
“Our goal is to electrify and automate all stages of farming” and create a model of what sustainable agriculture could look like, says Magami, who runs his farm as part of his start-up. , Chiba Eco Energy Inc.
The solar sharing movement is gaining adherents as the global push to replace fossil fuels encourages more innovative approaches to generating more renewable energy and reducing their exposure to foreign energy suppliers. Solar sharing is also useful in countries with harsh growing environments, protecting crops by absorbing sunlight and acting as a shield. Panels mounted higher off the ground also stay cooler, increasing their efficiency.
“We have seen many regions affected by climate change, and agrivoltaics could mitigate and make agriculture more resilient,” said Max Trommsdorff, agrivoltaic group leader at Fraunhofer 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 become carbon neutral by 2050, has limited capacity for solar energy due to its mountainous terrain. To compensate, the government is turning to rooftops, railroads, highways and airports, as well as its limited farmland.
While Magami has demonstrated the success of solar sharing, the practice has not been widely adopted in Japan, where agrivoltaics are a tough sell for Japan’s elderly farming population. Many have no successors to take over the business and they are unwilling to make the heavy investment in solar panels that 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 food security remains the priority. It has therefore put in place rules to guarantee production levels.
Magami says that despite the obstacles, there is a need for the country to embrace agrivoltaics to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. He calculates that using solar panels on about 5% of Japan’s arable land – about – could generate 20% of the country’s electricity. “Things like geothermal and hydropower take decades to start working,” Magami says. “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 2030 plan. Taiwan is watching the program as it searches for available space 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.
China, the world’s largest producer of solar panels, is home to the world’s largest agrivoltaic system, a project covering 20 million square meters (20,000 hectares) of land in the Ningxia desert. Of the 2.8 gigawatts of agrivoltaic systems installed worldwide, 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.
The combination of solar energy with agriculture is not suitable for all crops. Not everything grows well in shade, although experiments show that a surprising number of fruits and vegetables do. It even works well for shrimp and fish farms. Local laws and tariffs can also make a significant difference to the economic viability of building solar power installations.
For farmers who are burdened with rising costs for taxes, seeds, fertilizers and equipment purchases, the ability to generate additional income from their land must be a powerful incentive to consider agrivoltaics. Many members of the farming community look askance at solar sharing, claiming that installing solar panels is not real farming and destroys the bucolic nature of rural areas. Then again, telephone poles, cellphone towers and the smell of industrial-scale pig farms also do little to improve the quality of life in these areas.
One way to reduce carbon emissions is to simply stop burning coal, oil and methane to generate electricity. Agrivoltaic can be a more realistic solution that increases community energy security while boosting farmers’ incomes. It’s not the only answer, but it should be one of the options to preserve the Earth for future generations.
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