What we talk about when we talk about agrivoltaics

The agrivoltaic system has been at the centre of in-depth scientific research and public debate in recent years.

Clean energy, ecological transition, sustainable agriculture, food security and rural development are just some of the policies that could benefit from the implementation of this new technology, which embodies the long-term goals of the European Green Deal.[1]

At the same time, the topic of agrivoltaics still generates conflicting visions and interpretations: it is very often confused with photovoltaic systems and lacks a regulatory definition on the subject. This has contributed to generating a simplified and missing vision of the agrivoltaic system. The lack of a concrete definition and uniform standards can fuel greenwashing[2] practices that aim to exploit the ‘agrivoltaic’ label as a possible fast track to European authorisations, funds and incentives.

What is the agrivoltaic system and what role does it play in the future architecture of European policies?

To date, there is no universally accepted definition of what agri-voltaics is.

We are talking about a system that is based on the simultaneous use of areas of land for both solar energy production through photovoltaic systems and for agriculture.[3]
It is therefore an innovative form of photovoltaics that is based on the multiple and systemic use of land, combining innovation, efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

Research published in 2023 by the European Union’s Joint Research Centre Science for Policy Report[4] clarifies the major opportunities and challenges for agrivoltaics.

At a time when the ecological transition is central, this research is yet another sign of the far-reaching direction this technology will take at European level. Indeed, the European Solar Energy Strategy,[5] calls for an additional 450 GWp of photovoltaic capacity between 2021 and 2030, which would require a roughly fourfold increase in nominal capacity to over 720 GWp by 2030. Most interestingly, 50% of this capacity is expected to be distributed in agricultural areas. The proposal explicitly includes Agrovoltaics among the innovative forms of photovoltaic deployment.

Furthermore, the Commission will draft a guide for Member States to promote the development of these innovative forms of solar energy deployment identified in the EU Solar Energy Strategy (Agri-PV, floating PV, installation of PV in transport infrastructure, building-integrated PV and vehicle-integrated PV). A guide at European level would allow harmonisation (or at least a common vision) on the subject, although the road to binding regulatory standards at European level is still a lengthy one. In fact, the JRC research highlights how the term agri-environmental is present in only 4 of 27 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) strategic plans developed by EU countries, where funding for income support, rural development and market measures converge, and which indicate the direction individual countries will take. How this document is drafted remains at the discretion of each member state after approval by the European Commission (EC), which assesses its consistency with other European policies and strategies.

What elements characterise agrivoltaic and enhance its potential

While it is not possible to refer to a commonly accepted and recognised definition, there are some basic elements defined by currently ongoing scientific research that could help in defining what is and what is not agrivoltaic.

According to research conducted in 2021,[6] there are some relevant parameters to consider when talking about agrivoltaics.

The first is height. In particular, «the use of higher structures, commonly associated with agrivoltaic systems, can determine the homogeneity of the radiation availability under the photovoltaic modules, improve the connectivity and allow the use of high plants».[7] A higher height therefore allows for a higher radiation conversion efficiency than panels installed on the ground.[8] While it is true that some of the literature has also highlighted some counterproductive effects of increased panel height on the ecological performance of the system,[9] elevation remains a necessary requirement to stimulate synergies that include a potential increase in crop yield, a potential decrease in the amount of water used, and an increase in soil moisture.[10] The multi-potential of this technology in supporting crop yield, clean energy production, and water saving has been demonstrated in several studies, most notably one that has become a turning point in the agri-voltaic literature.[11]

The second element that plays a key role in the definition of agri-voltaics is configuration. When we speak of configuration, we are referring to the geometry and density of the panels, the arrangement of the panels to optimise the efficiency of the system. Several pattern solutions are currently implemented or under study in agri-voltaic systems. Different solutions have an influence on irradiation and connectivity, flowing into different types of systems. According to some proposed models, based on the study of agrivoltaics, «the degree of porosity or density of the system becomes a relevant attribute to describe the pore space[12] in which the agricultural activity will be accommodated.»[13]

This variable is fundamental to understanding the adaptability and potential of this model and the need to study ad hoc solutions that can enhance the needs of each territory. Creating solutions that meet a complex set of objectives, which go beyond the sole priority of energy production typical of photovoltaic panels, is at the heart of agri-voltaics.

Here comes the third element from which agrivoltaics cannot disregard: the landscape. Following Scognamiglio and Toledo, it is necessary to rethink a new landscape-oriented descriptive model.[14] The landscape, as intended by the European Landscape Convention, is «the correct dimension where issues can be faced in view of an improved ecological performance of the systems»,[15] and not as a mere envelope isolated from the environmental and social functions of the structures it contains.
Including a perspective capable of grasping the profound nuances of the landscape concept means thinking that agri-voltaic structures can be seen as infrastructures supporting other functions, such as water collection or soil stabilisation elements. Furthermore, the higher elevation would allow for better connectivity,[16] making possible additional functions related to animals and/or human activities such as the use of agrivoltaic areas as educational opportunities for the local community.[17]
Following this vision, agrivoltaics can be seen as a solar sharing system based and embodied in its landscape.[18] A model capable of incorporating agrivoltaic structures into their own landscape, expanding their social purpose in addition to their environmental sustainability function, which can give a further push for an all-round sustainable vision of this technology.

Synergies between technology and landscape and a multidisciplinary approach that includes perspectives from agricultural science, engineering and ecology are at the heart of agri-voltaics. There is a clear need to integrate research and ad hoc studies that make it possible not only to enhance the value of the land but also to make this technology environmentally and socially sustainable, and not just a means to qualify for new funding. This implies going beyond a strictly and solely technical perspective, in favour of a holistic vision that could include social as well as energy functions (educational or recreational), capable of restoring a vision of a landscape inhabited and experienced by the communities that inhabit it.

[1] For more information on the EU Green Deal: https://commission.europa.eu/strategy-and-policy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal/delivering-european-green-deal_en

[2] The creation or propagation of an unfounded or misleading environmentalist image.

[3] Chatzipanagi, A., Taylor, N., Jaeger-Waldau, A. (2023) Overview of the Potential and Challenges for Agri-Photovoltaics in the European Union, Jrc science for policy report (EU COM).

[4] The Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Union is the science and knowledge service of the European Commission. It aims to provide scientific support to the European policymaking process.

[5] Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, EU Solar Energy Strategy. COM/2022/221 final.

[6]  Toledo, C.; Scognamiglio, A. Agrivoltaic Systems Design and Assessment: A Critical Review, and a Descriptive Model towards a Sustainable Landscape Vision (Three-Dimensional Agrivoltaic Patterns) Sustainability 2021, 13, 6871. https://doi.org/10.3390/su13126871.

[7] Campana, Pietro Elia, et al. “Optimisation of vertically mounted agrivoltaic systems.” Journal of Cleaner Production 325 (2021): 129091.

[8] Campana, Pietro Elia, et al. “Optimisation of vertically mounted agrivoltaic systems.” Journal of Cleaner Production 325 (2021): 129091.

[9] These effects are mainly related to the higher energy expenditure for the production of higher panel structures. See Scognamiglio, ibid.

[10] Campana, Pietro Elia, et al. “Optimisation of vertically mounted agrivoltaic systems.” Journal of Cleaner Production 325 (2021): 129091.

[11] Amaducci, Stefano, Xinyou Yin, and Michele Colauzzi. “Agrivoltaic systems to optimise land use for electric energy production.” Applied energy 220 (2018): 545-561.

[12] The pore is defined as the space left by photovoltaics to accommodate additional functions on the same area of land.

[13] Toledo, C.; Scognamiglio, A. Agrivoltaic Systems Design and Assessment: A Critical Review, and a Descriptive Model towards a Sustainable Landscape Vision (Three-Dimensional Agrivoltaic Patterns) Sustainability 2021, 13, 6871. https://doi.org/10.3390/su13126871.

[14] Ibid.

[15]  Definition of the European Landscape Convention, available at: https://www.coe.int/en/web/conventions/full-list?module=treaty-detail&treatynum=176

[16] Connectivity is the degree to which the landscape facilitates or hinders movement between resources.

[17] Toledo, C; Scognamiglio A., supra.

[18] Ibid.