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Agrivoltaics provide mutual benefits across the food–energy–water nexus in drylands

Abstract

The vulnerabilities of our food, energy and water systems to projected climatic change make building resilience in renewable energy and food production a fundamental challenge. We investigate a novel approach to solve this problem by creating a hybrid of colocated agriculture and solar photovoltaic (PV) infrastructure. We take an integrative approach—monitoring microclimatic conditions, PV panel temperature, soil moisture and irrigation water use, plant ecophysiological function and plant biomass production within this ‘agrivoltaics’ ecosystem and in traditional PV installations and agricultural settings to quantify trade-offs. We find that shading by the PV panels provides multiple additive and synergistic benefits, including reduced plant drought stress, greater food production and reduced PV panel heat stress. The results presented here provide a foundation and motivation for future explorations towards the resilience of food and energy systems under the future projected increased environmental stress involving heat and drought.

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Fig. 1: Illustration of changes in midday energy exchange with transitions from natural systems, solar PV arrays and a colocated agrivoltaic system.

Illustration modified from ref. 49, Springer Nature Ltd.

Fig. 2: Micrometeorological impacts of colocation of agriculture and solar PV panels (agrivoltaic) over traditional (control) installations.
Fig. 3: Plant ecophysiological impacts of colocation of agriculture and solar PV panels versus traditional installations.
Fig. 4: Map of the experimental area, which consisted of an agricultural control site, a traditional ground-mounted PV installation and an agrivoltaic system site.
Fig. 5: Impacts of colocation of agriculture and solar PV panels (agrivoltaic) over traditional (control) installations on irrigation resources, as indicated by soil moisture.
Fig. 6: Impacts of colocation of agriculture and solar PV panels (agrivoltaic) over traditional ground-mounted installations on the surface temperature of PV panels.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author on request.

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Acknowledgements

This research and data were supported by (1) the Water, Environmental, and Energy Solutions initiative at the University of Arizona; (2) the Accelerate For Success Grants Program at the University of Arizona; (3) NSF EAR No. 1659546, REU Site: Earth Systems Research for Environmental Solutions at Biosphere 2; and (4) the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab through No. REJ-7-70227, Meeting SunShot Cost and Deployment Targets through Innovative Site Preparation and Impact Reductions on the Environment programme. The authors thank J. Adams and the Biosphere 2 team for their assistance in maintenance of the Biosphere 2 Agrivoltaics Learning Lab.

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G.A.B.-G., R.L.M., L.F.S., I.B.-M., D.T.B. and M.T. established research sites and installed monitoring equipment. G.A.B.-G. directed research. R.L.M., L.F.S., I.B.-M., D.T.B. and M.T. conducted most of the site maintenance. G.A.B.-G., M.A.P.-Z., G.P.N. and J.E.M. led efforts to secure funding for the research. All authors discussed the results and contributed to the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Greg A. Barron-Gafford.

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Barron-Gafford, G.A., Pavao-Zuckerman, M.A., Minor, R.L. et al. Agrivoltaics provide mutual benefits across the food–energy–water nexus in drylands. Nat Sustain 2, 848–855 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0364-5

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