The use of solar photovoltaic (PV) energy is gaining momentum globally, and Australia is particularly fertile ground as enough sunlight falls to meet the nation’s total energy needs many times over. ; At the end of August 2021, there were a total of 4,278,713 small-scale facilities, with an additional 13,297 MW of large-scale renewable energy initiatives already operational.
However, one barrier to increasing solar power generation in Australia is the space required for solar infrastructure. Whether mounted on the ground or on the roof, solar systems can take up valuable space needed for housing or food production for a growing population. Several reviews of my previous articles on electric vehicles (EVs) objected to the area occupied by renewable energy systems (among others).
According to recent work from ClimateWorks Australia, 53 percent of Australia’s land area is used for agriculture. This includes an area of ââintensive use concentrated around the southern and eastern coasts, which covers only 13 percent of Australia’s landmass but is responsible for almost all irrigated agriculture and a third of the production of the agricultural sector.
Australia needs to build linkages and coherence around the shift to a more sustainable food, agriculture and land use system. So how can farmers and agribusiness find ways to self-sustain and integrate solar power without sacrificing farmland?
A growing movement
Enter ‘Agrivoltaics’, a growing area of ââpractice in Australia and internationally that examines the desirability of integrating solar PV systems into land or infrastructure already in use for agriculture.
In large-scale solar farms, the spaces between the rows of panels can be planted with low-rise vegetation and used as grazing land. Solar panels can also be integrated into existing or new structures, such as shade structures for cattle awaiting milking or shade loving crops such as blueberries.
Who does this in Australia?
After successful experiences in Spain, Greece and Italy, global operator Enel Green Power (EGP) is now testing agro-voltaics at its Cohuna solar power plant in Gannawarra Shire, Victoria. By planting low-rise plants, they can use the land around ground-based solar panels for sheep and lamb grazing. Past experiments have shown that grazing sheep are able to keep vegetation at bay and prevent wildlife from encroaching on panels, so this is a win-win system.
During the recent launch of a partnership with the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA), Nicola Rossi, Head of Innovation at Enel Green Power, explained that the capacity âTo demonstrate innovative solutions that integrate agricultural and animal production activities with photovoltaic systemsâ¦ is the key to making renewable production even more sustainable in the long term.
On the border between New South Wales and ACT, Univergy Solar is teaming up with local company New Energy Development to begin construction of the 120 MW Wallaroo solar farm. Like EGP, the company plans to integrate solar panels on the 163 hectare sheep farm. The land will continue to be an operational sheep farm after installation and native planting will help attract local wildlife, pollinators and other insects, creating a thriving ecosystem.
Greenery might even improve performance
Lendlease is experimenting with a biosolar green roof at Barangaroo, in partnership with Jungelfy and the Sydney University of Technology, to see how the presence of greenery improves the performance of solar panels. The first results seem promising: the integration of the green roof improved the production of solar panels by about 3.6%, or $ 2,595 of energy production during the project.
The green roof also has other advantages. Compared to the conventional configuration, the green roof was up to 20 degrees Celsius cooler during the peak of summer, reducing the building’s cooling needs. Rooftop plants also absorb carbon, slow down and divert stormwater, and attract a variety of wildlife.
Suzie barnett, Managing Director of Junglefy, one of Australia’s leading specialists in nature-based solutions, was clear: âThe combination of green roofs and solar PV can make them the heroes of our built environment. Our research shows how the joint use of these systems improves the performance of buildings and creates a powerful and lasting impact on our cities.
âWe now have a clear solution for all building owners and investors who want to step in and take action during this climate emergency,â concluded Barnett.
Building the market
fr Wynn comes from a successful farming family in the Liverpool Plains region of New South Wales, in the North West Slopes. He saw that the debate over land use âsolar farms versus agricultureâ caused conflict among family members. Along with Brad Dolahenty, the two founded Wynergy to initiate agrivoltaic projects that could maximize the return on dual use of land.
âWe have a lot of farmers seeking information who contact us and who have been approached to lease land for large-scale solar farms,â Wynn said. “The opportunity for both in front of the clock [on the grid side] and behind the meter [on the energy userâs side] agrivoltaic installations are big! The yields are so much better for the solar system and the crops grown. “
The Wynergy team believes that all large-scale solar farms built on agricultural land should be built as agrivoltaic plants. The company has set itself the ambitious goal of installing 1 GW + of solar photovoltaic in agrivoltaic solar farms by 2030.
“It benefits farmers, regional economies – and also helps the large-scale solar industry improve our social license,” Wynn said.
Cost can be a barrier to getting started
Of course, there can be substantial upfront costs for agribusiness companies interested in using their land and roofs for solar power. While there is long-term potential for big profits, cash flow considerations can be a deterrent in the short term.
To remove barriers and encourage businesses to adopt solar and other sustainability and resilience measures, 51 councils in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia have introduced funding to upgrade the environment (also known as building upgrade funding).
Environmental Upgrade Finance is a one-size-fits-all loan that can help farmers install solar power systems without impacting cash flow.
This type of funding is only available when there is a building or built structure, so the ground panels need to be connected to a building on site, but it is a great option for farmers who want to get started. in solar power on their property.
Ed Cotter is the executive director of Better Building Finance, which works with dozens of local councils and the Sustainable Australia Fund as Australia’s leading provider of finance for environmental improvement. He said cash flow positive loans are one way to reduce risks associated with agri-voltaics.
âWe have seen a number of agribusinesses benefit from the unique structure of this financing to install solar energy, as it does not require money or upfront capital and is tied to the building rather than the owner,â Mr. Cotter. âBecause projects are designed to generate positive cash flow, companies typically realize thousands of dollars in savings within the first year. We had several companies who said it was obvious.
Hussey & Co Lettuce & Salad Mix Farm used Environmental Upgrade Finance to install roof and floor mounted systems. Solar upgrades have saved over $ 86,000 per year in electricity costs; it also reduced their annual carbon emissions by 754 tonnes, which is equivalent to taking 161 cars off the road each year.
âWe are really excited about the future of agri-voltaics,â Cotter said. âWe want to help more farmers and agribusinesses take the plunge.
With the discussions of land use, solar energy and climate extremes warming, the best opportunities will be those that are good for people (more resilient farming communities), the planet (more renewable energy produced, with crops and livestock around photovoltaics), and profit (agricultural businesses that are more profitable and generate more cash). Why push for one great result when you could have all three?
Robin Mellon is Managing Director of Better Sydney, Project Manager for the Property Council of Australia’s Modern Slavery Working Group and Supplier Platform, and NSW Program Advisor for Better Building Finance. As well as an EV nerd.