Solar energy vs agriculture

Looking at food security in the Philippines and the need to revive agriculture, the question comes up whether it makes economic sense to cover thousands of hectares of agricultural land with solar panels, given the fact that the land cannot be used for agriculture any longer and jobs in agriculture are eliminated.

Last week I raised this point in a discussion with Hubert d’Aboville, CEO of Pamatec and recognized eco-farm advocate, and Jean Ballandras, CEO Asia Pacific of Akuo Energy Pacific, a French energy company. And, much to my surprise, they had solutions.

Akuo Energy is offering two major innovations: Agrinergie and energy storage. The development and deployment of the Agrinergie concept meets the challenge of land scarcity by allowing the combination of energy production and agriculture on the same site. The most advanced form of this concept comes in the construction of photovoltaic, cyclone-proof greenhouses.

Let me be more specific about these innovations, which have been implemented already in various parts of the world, especially in countries and island nations that have the same issues like the Philippines: the need for the preservation of agricultural land, the need for solar power and the need to create high-value crops to raise the income of farmers.
Here are some convincing examples:

First, solar energy and agriculture:

With installed capacity of 9 MW, the Les Cèdres solar farm is the second facility in Réunion with integrated storage. It has storage capacity of 9 MWh. This storage helps support the grid, thanks to stable and continuous electricity supply, thus cancelling out the effects of intermittence caused by weather conditions. The stored power at the Les Cèdres solar farm alone is sufficient to cover the energy needs of the entire town, making Etang Salé the first green-energy town on Réunion.

The solar farm spans two sites. The first is an Aquanergie solar farm, consisting of photovoltaic sun screens above 12 fish rearing pools, with capacity of 1.5 MWp. The operator of this site is Max Dyckerhoff, a pioneer in fish farming on the island, who, for more than 25 years, has supplied the local market, particularly with tilapia.

The second site is an Agrinergie farm, where the photovoltaic screens have been raised to allow mechanized farming of the whole of the 7.5-hectare site. The agricultural partner for this site is Agriterra, an agricultural company partnered with Akuo Energy, which is developing a major permaculture project, mixing livestock, forestry and market gardening. Produce from these organic farms is destined for the local market, and several agricultural jobs have been created.

Second, the combination of photovoltaic and greenhouses that can resist typhoons:

The Agrinergie V solar farm is the third second-generation Agrinergie solar farm to be installed on Réunion. It consists of 12 cyclone-proof photovoltaic greenhouses, covering a total area of 2.82 hectares. The agricultural partner for this project, Jean Bernard Gonthier, current chairman of the local Chamber of Agriculture, uses this land for environmentally friendly production of fruit and vegetables for the local market. Thanks to the Agrinergie greenhouses, the farm has been able to revitalize some of reunion’s heritage vegetables.

The structure of the solar greenhouses provides solid supports to the creepers that produce very heavy fruit and vegetables, one of the characteristics of the ancient varieties known as “lantana” in the local creole. These plants, which had all but disappeared, are thus given an ideal climate in which to grow, perpetuating a Réunion tradition.

Third, adding advanced storage to the project, tackling the issue of intermittent supply industrialized battery storage:

The Olmo I project, located on the northern edge of Olmo II, was the first industrial solar-power plant with combined storage in Corsica when it came into operation in the summer of 2014. With installed capacity of 4 MWp and lithium ion battery-storage capacity of 4 MWh, the plant provides a solution to the problem of integrating renewable-energy solutions into non-interconnected areas: besides the ability to overcome the intermittent nature of this type of electricity production, by providing stable, controlled current, it also guarantees support to the grid thanks to intelligent systems for monitoring and controlling voltage and power output.

Given the availability of these tested advanced technologies, combining solar-energy generation and keeping agriculture going and providing high-value crop options, I am firmly of the opinion that the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources should no longer allow agricultural land to be converted into the usual solar fields that we are seeing in Negros and other parts of the Philippines.

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