With the rising threat of climate change, conventional energy sources are being fast replaced by non-conventional, renewable sources of energy. Solar energy is one such non-conventional source, which has enormous potential. Moreover, installing solar panels on agricultural land has immense potential in a country like India - and this arises from the fact that it can meet the power demands of areas where there is a shortage of power supply, and are subject to frequent power cuts.
Solar panels are being installed in the farmlands on a rapid scale. However, there is a problem: fitting these panels require land and this, in turn, reduces the area under cultivation, affecting farmers’ incomes. However, there are ingenious ways to solve these issues. As a consequence of proper advertising and various awareness programmes, farmers are now beginning to learn how to use solar panels for the purposes of farming. In fact, the use of solar energy for farming can be an excellent solution to increase farm productivity. It is a unique and extremely environmentally friendly farming solution. In a country like India, where farm incomes are experiencing a steady decline over the years, the installation of solar panels has the potential to make farms more sustainable and farming more economical for farmers.
The initial cost of installing a solar panel is high. However, in the long run, it leads to increased farm efficiency and output. The best way to install a solar panel on farmland is to install them a few feet above the land. In this way, the farmer can grow plants below the panels, thus, reducing wastage of area under cultivation. Crops that can grow under the shade, such as pollinator crops, bedding plants, small-statured fruits, trees, shrubs, and vegetables are some of the crops which are best suited to grow under the shade of solar panels. Besides, if these panels are installed at a proper height, small and medium-size livestock, such as most cattle breeds and non-draft breeds, can graze under them. Besides, a number of ongoing studies are pointing out the fact that growing plants under the solar panels can lead to increased solar cell efficiency, as it creates a cooling microclimate. There are other ways in which farmers can reap the benefits out of solar panels, without compromising on farm output. For instance, not all land owned by farmers are put under cultivation. They can use these lands to install solar panels.
However, there are certain problems. Even if you place the solar panel a few feet above the ground, it is difficult to do things like hoeing and ploughing. Using farm equipment under the solar panel becomes a big challenge. Even if you are able to solve this problem, there emerges another, even bigger problem: not all crops require shade. Therefore, you need to choose crops that can grow easily under the shade, while at the same time, does not affect your farm’s productivity and farm income.
In recent years, improvements in technology have solved these problems to some extent. Loom Solar is a startup that began in 2018, and today, they are one of India’s leading manufacturers of monocrystalline solar panels. These panels are much more efficient and require 15 to 20 percent less space for installation, as compared to other solar panels. Besides, there is ongoing research on bifacial solar panels. These panels are capable of using the reflection of the sun rays on the ground to convert them into solar energy. Researchers are planning on implementing this technology on different types of soil, with different kinds of crops planted. Thus, these are extremely efficient solutions. We need more such solutions, so that farming can be more sustainable.
One might wonder that use of solar panels in farmlands is a new concept. However, this concept, also known as agrophotovoltaics or APV, was introduced three decades ago by the physicist Adolf Goetzberger. There is currently a debate on the efficacy of using solar panels in farmlands. In a study, the same set of crops (potatoes, wheat, clover grass, etc.) were planted with and without solar panels. In the farmland where solar panels were installed, there was a decline in farm production in the range of 5.3 to 19 percent across various crops. However, the electricity generated with the solar panels reduced energy bills of the farmers, and thereby, led to an overall increase in farm efficiency by 60 percent.
We need more and broader studies to determine the efficacy of solar panels in farmlands. Studies on themes like microclimate, density of grass due to the installation of solar panels, infiltration of stormwater and its effects on solar panels, etc., need to be undertaken more rigorously to further understand the efficacy of solar farms. Such studies are already being conducted.
One of the biggest challenges of a solar farm is the initial cost involved. Not only are solar panels costly, but you also need an experienced engineer or technician for their installation. Besides, there must be other mediators between the farmers, the researchers, and manufacturers of solar panels. Bringing together so many resources require proper management and intervention, and this is why the state should play a more active role in this process. There is a need to bridge the gap between the farmers, and those who have the technical know-how.
One often wonders if non-renewable energy sources like solar energy can offer sustainable solutions in developing countries, like India. Are things like solar farms even sustainable on a large scale? Many people might not know, but India has the lowest solar power electricity generation cost in the world. Further, the single largest solar power plant in the world is located in India (Bhadla Solar Park). Solar energy is the future to India’s fast-growing electricity generation capacity. The manufacturers of solar panels are also growing in number in this country.
Thus, solar panels offer an ingenious sustainable farm solution. It can also lead to increased incomes for the farmers, which is a boon for a country like India, where farm incomes have been witnessing a steady decline. Solar farms are the future of farming!