Linking agriculture and solar energy is linguistically easy. It is enough to unite a prefix and a suffix to create agrovoltaics, a concept that promises to elevate the field to another dimension. The complexity comes when that alliance wants to be transferred to the field. But according to the first experiences, communion is possible and the result is satisfactory. Agrovoltaics consists of installing photovoltaic panels above arable surfaces to give the soil a double use. It is about placing solar panels in the form of a canopy, in such a way that a vineyard or an avocado plantation extends below.
Technology provides multiple advantages in theory. Apart from the obvious generation of renewable energy, the mobile panels create shade in times of excessive radiation, reduce water evaporation and protect crops from frost or heavy rain. The quality and quantity of the fruit increases, so the farmer obtains a higher income from the crops. The energy produced by the plates allows producers to reduce costs and achieve self-sufficiency, thanks to the creation of charging points in which to connect the cold rooms where the crops are stored. Renewables grow and the farmer continues to till the land, which guarantees his livelihood and reduces food dependence on the outside.
The Fraunhofer ISE Institute, which is based in Freiburg (Germany), has 1,400 professionals dedicated to renewable energy research, with special attention to solar energy. They published a study two years ago in which the results of an agrovoltaic project in Baden-Württemberg (southern Germany) were thrown. Land use efficiency in a potato plantation with solar panel canopies reached 186%. In other words, the yield of the soil is almost doubling without neglecting the farmer, the main actor in the last instance.
Pilot project in Aranda de Duero
In Spain, steps are already being taken in the development of this technology. Powerful Tree, a startup Headquartered in Vitoria dedicated to the research and implementation of agrovoltaic energy, it has partnered with Repsol to launch a pilot project in some vineyards at the San Gabriel School of Oenology, in Aranda del Duero (Burgos). It consists of studying changing variables, such as solar radiation or rainfall, and fixed ones, such as the characteristics of the land, and developing models to replicate this technology in other latitudes and in other crops. According to Inmanol Olaskoaga, general director of Powerful Tree, fruit trees such as figs or apricots, or tropical species such as mango or papaya –crops that bear fruit for which a high price is obtained– are the ones that obtain the most benefits if regulated. the amount of sun received.
Olaskoaga affirms that “the revolution has not yet taken place in the countryside compared to the industrial world”. This engineer is referring in part to this new technology and the sophistication of the jobs it can unleash. In the case of vineyards, winemakers work with engineers, data experts and mathematicians to decide, based on temperature measurements or plant transpiration, when and for how long the plates should be lowered to create shade on the top. low, where the clusters are, or turned so that it receives the total radiation. The operation of the installed panels is the same as that of any photovoltaic park.
Alberto Tobes is the Director of Experimentation of the Ribera del Duero Regulatory Council. This agronomist finds it positive to shade the vineyards some days of the year due to “the strange summers we are having, with such high temperatures.” Torbes explains that the metabolism of the plant stops when the heat is extreme, which causes the grapes to ripen more slowly. Torbes also points out the advantage of protecting the vines when it freezes. “It’s a few tenths of a difference that condemns you or saves you,” he says. The Ribera del Duero expert highlights the added value that these technologies bring to wineries because “being energy self-sufficient is positive for selling more.”
This incipient technology has the approval of Jacobo Feijóo, from the Union of Small Farmers and Ranchers (UPA). “It is worth giving him the opportunity, that he be tested. There is a real possibility of creating synergies in the field”, assures this forestry engineer. In addition, the implementation of agrovoltaics implies automation processes that will require experts in data collection or sensors. “The rural world urgently needs to attract talent,” says Feijóo. “This need must be exploited”, adds the UPA expert.
Olaskoaga adds that the generation of qualified jobs with good conditions will contribute not only to fixing the population in the rural environment, but also to make it attractive for new profiles. Decisions in the field are made based on the measurement of the sensors installed in the plots. Artificial intelligence, over time, does the rest. Information is collected so that fewer and fewer pilot tests are needed. The objective is to develop a model that allows to replicate what was successfully experienced in Aranda del Duero to other places with different weather conditions, such as Jumilla (Murcia), to give an example. The algorithm learns, let’s say.
The pilot initiative with the San Gabriel school will have a professional training degree starting next year so that future experts in agrovoltaics can emerge from its classrooms with the aim of “giving opportunities to the rural world,” says Olaskoaga. Workers in charge of the assembly, commissioning and maintenance of the agrovoltaic will be trained. The field grows up.