What is agrovoltaic energy and why can it help curb rural depopulation?

Renewables, Trends

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Agrovoltaic energy can be a great ally in the fight against climate change, as well as an opportunity for development in rural areas

Talking about new opportunities in the development of renewable energy is always a positive thing, especially when they can help the development of rural areas, which in some parts of Spain are steadily losing population year after year (up to 31% in provinces such as Zamora or 30% in Lugo), endangering the very existence of some villages, undermining a unique cultural heritage and neglecting the primary sector that is so important to our society. That is why today we want to pause our frenetic life to explain what this “new” trend called agrovoltaic energy is and why it can really help to reinvigorate some of these rural areas. Let’s go for it.

Agrovoltaics – also known as agri-voltaics or agro-photovoltaics – is nothing but the fusion of two economic activities that we are all familiar with: agriculture and photovoltaics. The idea itself is to make use of arable land for the installation of solar panels on the cultivated fields of a given area. Although initially this might seem counterproductive – as the panels absorb the sunlight and deprive the fields of it – there are many crops that can benefit from this curious symbiosis between the world of electricity generation and food production. Foodstuffs such as red pepper, broccoli, pitaya, aubergine, cauliflower and courgette would benefit from this relationship between light, which is so necessary for generating photovoltaic electricity, and shade, which is key to the growth of these vegetables.

This curious technique is not something that arrived overnight but instead took its first steps under the aegis of Adolf Goetzberger and Armin Zastrow in 1981. However, its applicability has proven useful over the last decade, in which this symbiosis has really come into its own. Examples include some projects such as those developed by Endesa with the Agrovoltaic plants of Valdecaballeros and Augusto in Extremadura, Totana in Murcia and Las Corchas in Andalusia. Such is the importance and potential of this technique that Iberdrola launched the international ‘Start-up Challenge: Agrovoltaic Energy’ in 2021; a competition to find innovative solutions that, according to the company itself, “boost the local economy, especially in regions facing the demographic challenge caused by progressive depopulation, while continuing to fight climate change and benefiting the energy transition”.

Why can agrovoltaic energy be an opportunity for rural environments?

Global energy demand, which is constantly rising as the population increases and the economy becomes more electrified, constantly requires new electricity generation plants. These facilities, depending on which part of the world we are in, tend to be built far from large population agglomerations, to avoid direct impacts on cities, although they end up being developed in rural areas. This trend is also reflected in the construction of photovoltaic plants, which in countries such as Spain end up being built in unpopulated areas with a mainly rural economy, where a large part of people’s livelihood depends on agriculture and livestock farming.

This is the starting point for a meeting between these two worlds. On the one hand, the rural world, in need of new projects that generate activity to attract population, and the urban world, with its growing need for clean energy to achieve the decarbonisation of the economy. This is why the economic activity generated around the development, installation and maintenance of these new photovoltaic plants can be an opportunity to attract complementary economic activities and auxiliary industry.

Moreover, these projects not only focus on the recovery of agricultural or livestock activities, but also support the recovery, promotion and improvement of certain local habitats; encouraging the protection of local flora and fauna through pollinator species. It is here that we find curious projects related to beekeeping; the panels would serve as a home for bees, while planting aromatic species such as sage, rosemary, lavender or coriander would help to pollinate the areas and generate, in turn, a related economic activity. The “solar apiary”, as they call it in this Endesa post related to a project promoted by the company – wonderful example of the numerous symbioses represented by agrovoltaics.

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