Mixing Solar Panels With Field Crops

Rakesh Agrawal and Mitch Tuinstra, professors at Purdue University, calculated that there isn’t enough vacant land in Indiana to provide for the state’s electricity needs using solar panels.

 

   They figured roughly 5 to 15 percent of Indiana’s agricultural land would be required for solar installations. So, they decided to see if solar panels could be erected on cropland without negatively impacting food production.

 

    “Corn doesn’t like shade, and solar panels are large and bulky and create shade. Any photons we take away from corn results in a reduced yield. There’s a cost for harvesting photons with these systems,” says Tuinstra.

 

   To help answer their questions, arrays of solar panels were erected over corn fields.

 

   “It’s more than just putting panels in a field,” Tuinstra says. “Our installations are automated to track the sun. In these situations, they’ll create shade, but at certain times of the year, they’ll anti-track with the wide portion of the panels parallel to the sun’s rays without shade being created. Plus, crops are in the fields for only a few months, but the systems will operate all year long.”

 

   Agrawal explains it becomes even more complicated in cloudy weather when solar units don’t generate as much electricity. “We’re studying how we can cut some light, but not beyond a certain point. Calculations about when panels should track the sun and when they shouldn’t are ongoing,” he says.

 

   Tuinstra explains farmers are already being approached by solar companies offering a payment per acre to install solar setups on their cropland. Farmers would be guaranteed an income for years, but many are concerned about the idea’s soundness.

 

   “There are no borders for these types of considerations,” he says. “It’s not just corn, but wheat, rice, and whatever crops are grown around the world. In the future, we’ll see more highly automated systems interacting between the crops, the environment, and power generation.”

 

   Contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Mitch Tuinstra, Rakesh Agrawal, Purdue University (mtuinstr@purdue.edu; agrawalr@purdue.edu).