The solar panels in the fields at the University of Massachusetts Crop Research and Education Center don’t look like what most of us have come to expect. Instead of hunkering close to the earth, they’re mounted seven feet off the ground, with ample room for farmers or cows to wander underneath. Panels are separated by two- and three-foot gaps, instead of clustering tightly together. Light streams through these spaces and, underneath, rows of leafy kale and Brussels sprouts replace the typical bare earth or grass.
This unusual arrangement is one of the first examples of a dual-use solar installation—sometimes called agrivoltaics. It’s a photovoltaic array that’s raised far enough off the ground and spaced in such a way that some crops can still grow around and beneath the panels. The goal is to help farmers diversify their income through renewable energy generation, while keeping land in agricultural use and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“This would seem like a great thing—you get to farm and use the same exact space to generate money from solar production,” said Brad Mitchell, deputy executive director of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation. “But it’s still in the early stages.”
The idea of producing solar energy and growing crops on the same land has been around for a while. Isolated demonstration and research installations are in place or planned in Arizona, Japan, and France. In recent years, however, the concept has become more attractive, as the price of photovoltaic panels has plummeted, interest in renewable energy has risen, and financial pressures on small farmers have grown. And because solar arrays often displace agriculture, causing tension between the two land uses, agrivoltaics is being seen as a potential win-win.