[Podcast] GigaWhat: Farms harvest solar energy

  • Agrivoltaics is a system where the same plot of land is used to harvest crops and generate energy by placing solar panels over fields.
  • While agrivoltaics is in its initial stages in India, it is one of the design-based solutions being experimented with to optimise use of land, precious resource for both farming and energy production.
  • In the fourth episode of the GigaWhat podcast, we look at what this new way of agricultural land utilisation could mean for the farmer.

Agriculture occupies 60 percent of India’s total land area. Meanwhile, to generate electricity, the country requires thousands of square kilometres of land for coal mines, thermal power plants, and renewable energy projects. India’s focus on renewable energy, with the aim of 175 GW by 2022, could impact agricultural areas ranging from 24,000 sq. km. to 55,000 sq. km.

While both agriculture and energy vie for the same precious resource – land – is there a way that both could work in a complementary manner?

Contributing Editor, Mongabay-India and the podcast host, Mayank Aggarwal, speaks to experts on the upcoming use of agrivoltaics where agriculture and energy can coexist on the same land.

In conversation with Nutan Kaushik (Director General, Amity Food and Agriculture Foundation), Maximilian Vorast (Research Assistant, Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems) and Shravan Sampath (CEO, Oakridge Energy), we look at the potential and roadblocks of agrivoltaics in India and what this new way of looking at farmland could mean for the farmer.

Listen here:



Full transcript

You are listening to Everything Environment by Mongabay-India

What are the high hurdles for India to uplift its people and realise its potential on the world stage? Two of the most significant ones are securing food for its large population and providing enough energy to power homes and industries.

As it has always been, land, as a resource, is a precious commodity for both farming, and energy production.

On the one hand, it is estimated that nearly 58 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people are engaged in agriculture, which occupies 60 percent of its total land area.

On the other hand, to generate electricity, the country requires thousands of square kilometres of land for coal mines, thermal power plants, and renewable energy projects to meet its energy needs.

A 2019 study noted that fulfilling India’s 2022 goal of 175 GW of renewable energy could impact agricultural areas nearly the size of Himachal Pradesh.

Solar power projects that will contribute to more than half of our 450 GW renewable energy target by 2030, require a lot of land for its most popular form of large solar parks. In places where a solar project eyes fertile and cultivated land, it could lead to social unrest from people directly or indirectly losing livelihoods. This, in turn, means delays and financial losses for energy companies.

What is the solution to this complex challenge? Agricultural and energy researchers are turning to one design-based solution to optimise land usage. The idea is to use the same plot of land to harvest crops…and energy by placing solar panels over fields. The system is called agrivoltaics.

In this episode, we will hear from some of the forerunners in agrivoltaics in India. They’ll speak about the potential and roadblocks in the field. We’ll discuss what this new way of looking at farmland could mean for a key stakeholder in agrivoltaics – the farmer.

Mayank Aggarwal (MA): I’m Mayank Aggarwal, Contributing Editor at Mongabay-India. We are an online publication dedicated to bringing you stories on science and the environment in India.

In our special podcast series, GigaWhat, we’ll explore some of the biggest questions, challenges, and opportunities in India’s transition from fossil fuels to clean energy sources.

Agrivoltaics is in its initial days in India. There are several pilot projects underway to understand and demonstrate its abilities. Nutan Kaushik is part of a pilot project inside a university campus in Noida near Delhi.

Nutan Kaushik (NK):I am Dr. Nutan Kaushik, working as Director General at Amity Food and Agriculture Foundation.

So, we have an organic farm within the university system. So, we have installed this agrivoltaic system in our university itself. We have two systems – a two kilowatt model and a ten kilowatt model. If the farmer has a 10 kilowatt model, it can supply the surplus energy, like the electricity, to the main grid and then earn by selling the, it can also have the additional income by sustaining income by selling the electricity to the grid, while at the 2 kilowatt level it can sustain it can consume the electricity for the household level. So these are the two models which we have created at our farm.

MA: Their design involves around 40 solar panels placed on bunds of a small farm, elevated at about four to five meters from the ground. They have grown crops such as maize, mustard, and wheat, below and between the rows of these panels. The electricity produced from this is consumed in-house.

Some projects that don’t mount panels so high have crops growing between rows of solar panels. Because a lot of farming is mechanised with tractors and other machines, there are designs with panels placed as high as three to four metres separated by gaps up to five metres. But for now, there’s no standardisation of design specifications for agrivoltaics in India.

MA: What are the kinds of benefits a farmer can get out of this agrivoltaic system?

NK: It will provide an additional income to the farmer by selling electricity of minimum of rupees 10,000 per month from the 10 kilowatt solar plant. This 10 kilowatt solar plant can be installed in 0.25 acre of land, which is a very win-win situation for the farmer.

MA: How much cost will a farmer have to bear for this agri-voltaic system? What is the cost a company will bear for this?

NK: There are two models which can be adopted, one is that the land can be taken on lease, where the farmers can be paid the amount for the leasing the land, that’s one model. So, the company can take care of the entire cost and then it pays to the farmers for the land on which it is installing the panel while the farmer can keep doing their own crop that would be one model. Another model that farmers owns the entire system where the cost will be somewhere from Rs. five to 10 lakh depending upon the capacity with the farmers looking forward to and this can be provided as subsidies by the government or some kind of partnership need to be developed.

MA: But in a country like India, where land holdings are not uniform or in a lot of places, we have very small land holdings, and we have hundreds and thousands of marginal farmers. In that context how will this kind of system work in the country?

NK: As I told you that 10 kilowatt system utilises only 0.25 acre of land, which is not a big deal, that farmers can have, I think even the marginal farmer can afford to have this much of land. So this 10 kilo watt model can be easily adopted by the marginal farmer, because this model has been created, basically looking into the requirement of the marginal farmer only. Now, the government of India is also promoting the FPO, the Farmers Producers Organisation or the FPC, Farmer Producer Company, so this FPC or FPO can also take the responsibility of promoting the agri-voltaic system at a larger scale. So, what happens in this case the farmers of the village can come together and then install this agri-voltaic system and whatever is the surplus electricity, they can sell it to the government and then the government can take it from the farmers and then they can generate the additional income and that income can be divided by the farmers as the FPO, FPO can take care of division of the money as per the agreements which they have with the farmers.

MA: Nutan Kaushik says that while farmers have been impressed by their demonstrations, some have shown apprehension to adopt the model. It needs high investments. But she is hopeful that government incentives could slowly iron out the issues.

A 2021 report by the National Solar Energy Federation of India and the Indo-German Energy Forum lists around 16 operational pilot agrivoltaic projects in India, including the one at Amity University. These systems range from 3kW to 1 MW.

The report estimates that India could install 630 GW of agrivoltaic systems with just 1% of agricultural land simultaneously used for producing electricity.

Even a fraction of this ambitious number requires a robust mechanism, especially in a country where the agricultural sector is stressed due to debts, rising costs, climate change, land rights and other issues.

Maximilian Vorast from Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, one of the report’s reviewers, has studied agrivoltaics for over four years. He spoke to us about the potential of agrivoltaics in avoiding clashes with farming communities but directly benefiting them.

Maximilian Vorast (MV):That is exactly the goal, one of the goals of agrivoltaics to find a way of integrating photovoltaics into the, into the rural economy. So that means we’re not only cashing out farmers for buying the land and then be like, “Okay, that’s it.” But the goal of agrivoltaics is to combine agriculture, with the PV, and electricity generation. Of course, we will have a lot of new PV capacity being installed in the next decades.

So, just imagine if we have now we have relatively much land available, but then in the next 10, or in the next 15, in the next 20 years, when the installations exponentially increase, then we of course, have also an increase of these land conflicts.

And the question is, how can PV fit into that without disrupting local communities that host these facilities and that is, that is the idea there to have a win-win situation for farming communities and also for urban electricity consumption and PV developers and the industry.

So agrivoltaics can of course, be a mitigation option for land conflict, but it has also inherent benefits from a technical point of view, so you can say, first of all, the reason why agrivoltaics works is because the crops usually don’t need as much light as they get. So, we have the so-called light saturation point and from this point onwards any additional sunlight cannot be utilized by a crop for better growth or better yields. So, we have certain shading rate for example 30% and then we can say do the yields of the crops reduce accordingly also 30% or do we have you know, a certain space of maneuvering where the crop does only lose like 10% or even probably even gain from the shade and have yield increases. So here we can have, via the option of shading, we can improve the improve improve our methods how to do agriculture.

The types of crops that go well with these systems are an ongoing and vital area of research. It will show how the system can truly bring profits for farmers too.

Apart from land, the solar farms and the agricultural farms will have to negotiate over another shared resource.

MA: India is already facing water issues. So do you think that an agrivoltaic system will add to the water woes of the farmers as the resource will now have to be split between solar setups and the crops?

MV: I don’t think that it will be a problem because if we use water for the cleaning of the modules, which is the main driver of water use in PV, then we can reuse this water for proper irrigation. So there is this water can in fact, be reused.

I think the problem is more the question with the electricity usage. So we have had discussions in the past about if farmers get the free solar energy, there will be a rebound effect and farmers will use this energy to irrigate even more. And that is something that also is in the discussion for agrivoltaics but I think it’s a very different system to look at because agrivoltaics has more potential if it’s like, in a larger facility, a 100, 200, 300 kilowatts onwards and not being just a pumping system with like five or 10 kilowatts.

MA: The Amity University project uses a solar water pump and a sprinkler-based system to clean the panels. The same water is diverted to irrigate the field.

Nutan Kaushik, who worked on the 10kW model at Amity, also believes that farmers will have to be sensitised and convinced to look at electricity as a source of income and not end up over-irrigating fields, causing water scarcity and other issues.

MA: We looked at another agrivoltaic pilot project established in early 2021 on the outskirts of Delhi. A 110 kW system is set up on the campus of the agricultural research institute, Krishi Vigyan Kendra. The site grows crops such as okra, brinjal, tomato and other food crops, and the electricity generated here is supplied to three to four government institutions in other parts of Delhi.

We spoke to Shravan Sampath from Oakridge Rooftops Pvt. Ltd., which owns, operates and maintains the agrivoltaic setup. He gave us a little more insight into the realities on the ground.

Shravan Sampath (SS): So, let me tell you a few nuances out here. In our project, we have created a rainwater harvesting system. So the solar water, the water, which is used to clean the solar panels gets accumulated in one corner of the field, and the ground water gets regenerated. So in that sense, the water is getting recycled, and the water goes down. And somehow the you know, the groundwater is also getting recharged. So things are great on that perspective. And that was part of our scope. But having said that, we also find that different farms have different quality of water, they have not really thought through whether most farms don’t have most farms don’t have regular water they have hard water, hard water is not suitable for cleaning solar panels.

Scaling takes place on the solar panels, which prevents generation from taking place properly. If you leave it in the scope of the farmer, I can assure you it’s not a practical solution, we have to figure out our own water. That’s presently the issue even in our field. So our client is getting us the tankers with regular water, like soft water, getting a tanker every fortnight to give us water to clean the solar panels. So that is presently what’s happening. But I don’t see that as a systemic solution. We have to figure out the water issue, cleaning issue.

Some farmers or some farms may insist that the developer has to install an RO plant and only then you know permission can be given for an agrivoltaic plant. So, ensuring quality of water is a very important thing.

Second, I see that as we scale up, there will be a larger conflict between who gets priority access to water, because during the sowing season and the harvesting season, the farmer will require the water more than the developer will require. So there may always be a conflict as to whether the limited water availability as you know, India is a water-scarce country, given our massive requirements of food grains and things like that. So I think there will always be a challenge as to whether water should be prioritised for agriculture, or it should be prioritised for solar.

And also let me introduce you to another nuance, which is that actually physically cleaning the panels means that somebody has to climb the structure or climb the pedestal, which is located close to the structure and pour water on the panels. Now that would mean that he is in some sense, walking on the field, maybe trampling on the crops. So unless there is very specific guidelines as to where the ladder can be placed and where the solar plant can be cleaned from, it is likely that every cleaning cycle will involve trampling on the crops, because physically we’re still cleaning the panels with human beings. Now there are some technologies available where solar panels can be cleaned using robotic technology. So those are things which probably we need to figure out as we go along and start using those in agrivoltaics more actively. But at the moment, there is a problem that, you know, the physical act of cleaning itself can put the farmer in conflict with the solar developer who are in the same field.

MA: Design modifications to mount and raise solar panels. Special arrangements for water. Alternative robotic cleaning tech to conserve water.

Add all these to the basket, and the cost borne by a solar developer shoots higher. In other words, the cost a developer incurs in producing per unit of electricity goes up, forcing them to increase selling prices.

And a slight increase in cost per unit can be a dealbreaker because states will try and purchase power from the cheapest alternatives whenever possible.

SS: So this is exactly the problem we are facing right now. The government has a programme called KUSUM, where it’s an agriculture integrated scheme where solar pumps are used for agriculture. And they want to set up solar plants like this which are agrivoltaic systems, but the tariffs that are being provided are so low, like I remember Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra states, large states, they gave us a sealing tariff of three rupees and 10 paisa to build a solar plant integrated, you know, with agriculture. So like agrivoltaic plant basically, I can guarantee you, that price doesn’t work.

So, the problem again in India is that, because solar has become that cheap, there is a pressure, there is always a pressure that let’s go for the cheapest possible solar power.

So unless there is policy thrust and government level initiative to provide a special dispensation for agrivoltaics, I doubt whether these kinds of projects will scale.

MA: As research in agrivoltaics picks up speed and gets the necessary support from the government, it could be one of the solutions to renewable energy’s land issue. You can hear more about that issue in episode two of GigaWhat.

MA: Thank you for listening to GigaWhat. Please share this episode with your friends and family or you could just share it on social media.

This show was produced and scripted by my colleague Kartik Chandramouli. Edited and mixed by Tejas Dayananda Sagar. Copy edits, Priyanka Shankar. Podcast production assistant, Ayushi Kothari. Episode artwork, Mohit Negi.

We’ll be out with another episode of GigaWhat soon. Take care.


Banner image: The agrivoltaic setup at Amity University in Noida. Photo by Nutan Kaushik/Amity Food and Agriculture Foundation.

Exit mobile version