The fascinating, mysterious science of combining farms and solar panels

Other challenges are more vexing. In a survey conducted by Michigan Technological University, farmers expressed concerns over not knowing how crop or livestock markets might look in the years ahead. A farmer who makes an investment in agrivoltaics must look 10, 20, 30 years into the future to project revenue, and calculating profit margins is still a speculative exercise. Additionally, some farmers surveyed wondered how the concrete and beams might change the land over time, with an influx of large, permanent structures potentially causing issues for crops or for livestock. 

Perhaps most significantly, the upfront costs of agrivoltaics are giant. They will have to be defrayed through some combination of policy, tax incentives, favorable loans, and/or integration into electrical grids, where farmers can profit from selling the sunlight they farm. In the end, the balance of upfront capital costs for installation, solar energy sales, and agriculture sales must exceed the sales of a traditional farm.

These novel challenges have led to some unusual partnerships and approaches. Solar grazing, for instance, typically means bringing in livestock from outside farms and ranches to help maintain a solar site. 

“With the solar… the animals have shade in abundance,” said Lexie Hain, executive director of the American Solar Grazing Association, who practices solar grazing with sheep in upstate New York. “If I visit my sheep at lunchtime, under the panels they’re asleep, they’re chewing their cud, they are not stressed. And they drink less water than they would if I had them home here on the farm.”

Like many solar grazers, Hahn transports her sheep to solar farms to graze. The owners need vegetation trimmed so it doesn’t block or damage panels—so, for a price and feed for their animals, solar grazers step in. “I can do it for about half of what the landscapers do,” saidRichard Cocke, a shepherd who brings his sheep to two solar sites in southern Arizona, having stopped visiting a third due to coyote troubles. “I don’t cause breakage to the panels. And it’s green.”

Pollinator-friendly sites are another sub-category. According to Yale research, this approach—which entails growing beneficial non-food plants like perennial wildflowers and native grasses under solar cells—can increase groundwater recharge, curb soil erosion, and up solar efficiency by creating a cooler microclimate for panels. It can also bolster crop yields on nearby farms of crops requiring pollination. But large-scale adoption, the study authors write, will “warrant policy intervention.” With no crop to sell, pollinator-focused solar farmers would likely need lawmakers and business leaders to recognize the ecosystem services they provide, ultimately developing systems of financial incentives to make the extra trouble worth it. 

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