Growing Broccoli Under Solar Panels Has Surprising Benefits
This article originally appeared on Inside Climate News. It is republished with permission. Sign up for their newsletter here.
Although “gross” according to some picky eaters, broccoli is well suited to growing alongside solar panels, according to a new study.
Research from Chonnam National University in South Korea is part of the burgeoning field of ‘agrivoltaics’, in which agronomists and energy experts are looking for opportunities for solar power and agriculture to exist. on the same ground with the aim of meeting the world’s needs for both energy and food.
The results, published in the journal Agronomy, show that the shade provided by solar panels helps give broccoli a deeper green hue, making the vegetable more attractive to grocery stores and consumers without significant loss in size or the nutritional value of the harvest.
But the greatest financial benefits for farmers come from energy production. According to the study, revenues from solar power were about 10 times greater than those from broccoli, indicating that farmers who already grow the vegetable are missing an opportunity by not having solar panels in the same fields. The authors include Kang Mo-Ku, a professor of horticulture.
The paper is “an excellent case study,” said Jordan Macknick, a senior analyst at Colorado’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, whose work focuses on agrivoltaics.
Its main caveat is that the results only apply to a single crop grown in a region. He said the paper provides evidence that should encourage further research in other places and with other cultures.
He would know. His team at NREL has several projects involving solar energy alongside carrots, chard, kale, peppers and tomatoes, among others.
One of the problems with agrivoltaic may simply be the term “agrivoltaic”, which may sound off-putting to some people, especially those who are not energy researchers or in energy industries.
Macknick hears this a lot.
“It seems kind of like jargon, and it seems a little intimidating,” he said. “And, Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize the spelling or think it’s a real word.”
But the underlying concept – that farms can produce energy and food on the same hectare, instead of having to choose one or the other – is vital to the transition to clean energy, a- he declared.
So far, the combination of solar power and agriculture has worked best with solar panels of only a few hectares, the electricity being mainly consumed by the farm. It still doesn’t make sense economically in large projects that occupy hundreds or thousands of acres.
Researchers are studying ways to expand the crops that can be grown with solar energy and the scale at which solar energy and agriculture can coexist.
But those efforts won’t matter much unless researchers can sell farmers on the merits of solar-crop collaboration. And that might be a tough sell. For example, maneuvering farm equipment between rows of solar panels can be complicated, Macknick said. Moreover, the income from solar energy is so much higher than the income from most crops that many farmers may not want to worry about growing crops on land with solar energy at all.
But there are exceptions, such as organic produce sold at farmers’ markets and restaurants, which fetch higher prices than crops sold to food companies.
Jack’s Solar Garden near Boulder, Colorado has become a leading example of a company that combines solar power and agriculture, with partners such as NREL. Jack’s gardens include areas for growing wildflowers and other plants that help foster a habitat for bees, which is an area of common interest for many of the pioneering agrivoltaic companies.
Macknick has learned from working with Jack’s and others that the crops that work best with solar power can vary greatly depending on local climate.
So farmers may be able to grow big green heads of broccoli under solar panels in South Korea, but tomatoes may do better in Colorado; researchers and farmers work together to determine what works where.