Solar energy farming is a growing trend around the world. Traditionally, many solar farms just focus on energy. Lately, some farmers are finding out they can farm and make energy. So now, solar panels are making their way onto farms around the world.
Could this trend grow into a sustainable future for the world’s food and energy needs? Could farmers see more money for their land?
WHAT IS SOLAR FARMING?
Solar farms are big solar panel systems that use photovoltaic (PV) panels (solar panels) to collect energy from the sun. Solar farms are also known as ‘solar parks,’ ‘solar plants’ and ‘solar power stations.’ These farms turn energy from the sun into electricity that people and businesses can use. Right now most electricity comes from burning fossil fuels in power plants.
Solar systems on farms are either on the ground or up in the air on stilts. While ground systems are more common right now, “agrivoltaics” is growing popular. Agrivoltaics is basically growing plants under solar panels.
Farming crops under solar panels can help grow more food, save water, and make energy. This farming system is interesting because farmers don’t lose as much land space. The farm is able to grow food on the land and make energy, not just one or the other. Also, farms located in hot areas with constant sun are able to grow shade crops with an agrivoltaic system.
IS SOLAR FARMING PROFITABLE?
Many small farms struggle to make money. For example, in Wisconsin 2 farms a day go out of business. So, farmers are searching for new ways to make extra money and still be able to farm. It seems that solar farming for profit is one possible solution. Now, solar panels on farms are increasing all over the US and the world. In fact, many farms and landowners call solar the new “cash crop.” A cash crop is a plant that is making the farm the most money.
Overall a 1-megawatt solar farm can power 400-900 homes. This size system will earn about $40,000 per year by selling the electricity. It’s important to know though, that not all farmers own their own solar farm. Many farmers will simply rent their land to the power company. By doing this the farmer doesn’t need to worry about taking care of the system, or the cost of setting it up. Top solar land lease websites say solar land leases pay between $250 and $3000 an acre.
TWO COMMON TYPES OF SOLAR FARMS
For a solar farm to make money it must sell the power it collects. So here are two ways that’s done.
Community Solar Farm Projects
These farms serve members of a local living area who pay for a share of its power. Also, the projects are usually privately owned. The four top community solar states include Massachusetts, New York, Minnesota, and Colorado.
Utility Solar Farms
On the other hand, these farms collect energy for the utility company. Then the utility company sells the energy to its customers. The power from these farms is sent to people with a mix of energy made from other sources through power lines.
Currently, the largest utility solar farm will be the Gemini Solar and Battery Storage Project in Nevada. This solar farm will be able to produce 690 megawatts of electricity and the battery storage system will generate 380 megawatts. That’s enough energy for 260,000 homes!
SOLAR FOR FARMING PROS AND CONS
Solar farms get bulk prices on solar panels, so the cost is lower. Small home systems can be very expensive without this discount.
Solar power stations can be in ideal places free from shading from trees.
Solar farms are spread out, so all power made is not only coming from one place. This helps electricity stay on when there is a problem someplace else.
Needs less land than other forms of energy. A 1-megawatt solar farm typically needs 6–8 acres. That’s enough energy for 400-900 homes for a year!
Reduced set-up costs – The use of farmland means the land is already flat and free of trees so that saves money.
Decrease costs of electricity for the farmer who is able to use the energy made.
High Cost to build – Costs for between $820,000 and $1.36 million for a 1-megawatt farm.
Needs a lot of approvals – It can take 3-4 years of paperwork and approvals before you can build.
Solar panels only last 20-25 years. Then they have to be replaced, which costs a lot of money.
Growing under panels doesn’t leave much space for farm equipment to drive under the 6/8-feet solar panels.
Farming can be back-breaking work when farmers can’t use equipment. Farmers will have more manual work under or around solar panels.
Location choice must work for both solar energy making and crop growing. (Needs long daylight hours with lots of sunlight)
Crop selection is limited, as it can only include shade-friendly plants.