This approach could have benefits for both energy production and crop production. Less direct sunlight helps keep plants cooler during the day, allowing them to retain more water and therefore watering less. Planting plants beneath the solar panels also reduces the amount of heat reflected from the ground, keeping the panels cooler and increasing their efficiency. Farm workers tending crops and grazing animals also benefit from cooler temperatures.
Adopting this practice at scale could help the United States reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 330,000 tons per year and add more than 100,000 rural jobs without too much impact on crop yields. A 2019 study in the journal Scientific Reports predicted that solar panels could meet the world’s energy needs if less than 1 percent of farmland was converted to agricultural photovoltaic systems.
Integrating agriculture with energy production has multiple advantages, says Joshua Pearce, a solar expert at Western University in London, Ontario. “Solar energy and improved land use efficiency are cost-effective, and therefore can increase farmers’ income on a given piece of land,” he said. “Local communities also benefit from protecting access to fresh food and renewable energy.”
But researchers are still figuring out the best way to implement photovoltaic systems for agriculture. One variable is height: At Jack’s Solar Garden, for example, scientists are experimenting with raising panels 6 or 8 feet from the ground. There is also the question of which types of plants respond best to the extra shade from the solar panels.