The use of solar photovoltaics (PV) is gaining momentum globally, and Australia is particularly fertile ground as sufficient sunlight falls to supply the nation’s total energy needs many times over; by the end of August 2021 there had been a total of 4,278,713 small-scale installations, with an additional 13,297 MW of large-scale renewable energy initiatives already operating.

However, one barrier to increasing solar power generation in Australia is the space required for solar infrastructure. Whether ground or roof-mounted, solar systems can take up valuable space needed for housing or for food production for a growing population. Several critics of my previous Electric Vehicle (EV) articles objected to the land area taken up by renewable energy systems (amongst other things).

According to recent ClimateWorks Australia work, 53 per cent of Australia’s area is used for agriculture. This includes an intensive use zone concentrated around the southern and eastern coasts, which covers only 13 per cent of Australia’s landmass but is responsible for almost all irrigated farming and a third of the agricultural sector’s output. 

Australia needs to build connections and coherence around the shift to a more sustainable food, agriculture and land use system. So how can farmers and agribusinesses find ways to self-power and integrate solar without sacrificing farmland?

A growing movement

Enter “Agrivoltaics”, a growing area of practice both in Australia and abroad that looks at the opportunity of integrating solar PV systems into land or infrastructure already used for agriculture. 

In large-scale solar farms, the spaces between the arrays of panels can be planted out with low height vegetation and used as land for grazing. Solar panels can also be integrated into existing or new structures, such as shade structures for cattle waiting to be milked or shade-loving crops such as blueberries. 

Who’s doing it in Australia?

Following successful experiments in Spain, Greece and Italy, global operator Enel Green Power (EGP) are now trialing agrivoltaics at their Cohuna solar power plant in Gannawarra Shire, Victoria. By planting low height plants, they can use the land around the ground-mounted solar panels for sheep grazing and lamb pasturing. Previous experiments have shown that grazing sheep are able to keep vegetation at bay and stop wildlife from encroaching on the panels, so it’s a win-win system. 

At the recent launch of a partnership with the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA), Nicola Rossi, Enel Green Power’s Head of Innovation, explained that the ability “to demonstrate innovative solutions that integrate agricultural and livestock production activities with photovoltaic systems…is the key to making renewable generation even more sustainable in the long term.”

Over on the border between New South Wales and the ACT, Univergy Solar are partnering with local business New Energy Development to begin construction on the 120 MW Wallaroo Solar Farm. Like EGP, the business plans to integrate solar panels onto the 163-hectare sheep farm. The land will continue to be an operational sheep farm following installation and planting out natives will help to attract local wildlife, pollinators and other insects, creating a thriving ecosystem.

Greenery might even improve performance

Lendlease is experimenting with a biosolar green roof at Barangaroo, in partnership with Jungelfy and the University of Technology Sydney, to see how the presence of greenery improves the performance of solar panels. Early findings look promising: integrating the green roof improved the solar panel output by about 3.6 per cent, or $2595 worth of energy generation over the course of the project. 

Solar Panels at Damaru House

The green roof has other benefits too. Compared to the conventional set up, the green roof was up to 20 degrees Celsius cooler during the peak of summer, reducing the building’s air conditioning requirements. The plants on the roof also absorb carbon, slow down and divert storm water and attract a vibrant range of wildlife.

Suzie Barnett, general manager of Junglefy, Australia’s leading nature-based solutions specialists, was clear: “Combining green roofs with solar PV can make them the heroes of our built environment. Our research shows how using these systems together improves building performance and creates a powerful and lasting impact on our cities.”

“We now have a clear solution for all building owners and investors who want to step up and act during this climate emergency,” concluded Ms Barnett.

Building the market

Ben Wynn comes from a family of successful farmers in the Liverpool Plains region of New South Wales, within the North West Slopes. He saw that the “solar farms versus agriculture” land-use debate was causing conflict between family members. Along with Brad Dolahenty, the two founded Wynergy to pioneer agrivoltaic projects that could maximise dual land-use return.

The system pictured powers the farm’s four irrigation pumps as well as providing shade for Illawarra dairy and stud Angus cattle herds

“We have lots of information-seeking farmers contact us who have been approached to lease land for large scale solar farms,” said Mr Wynn. “The opportunity for both front of meter [on the grid side] and behind the meter [on the energy user’s side] agrivoltaic installs is big! The returns are so much better for both the solar system and the agricultural products being grown.”

The Wynergy team believes that all large-scale solar farms constructed on agricultural land should be constructed as agrivoltaic installations. The business has set the ambitious target of installing 1GW+ of solar photovoltaics in agrivoltaic solar farms by 2030.

“It benefits farmers, regional economies – and also helps the large-scale solar industry enhance our social license,” said Mr Wynn. 

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Cost can be a barrier to getting started

Of course, there can be substantial upfront costs for agribusinesses interested in making use of their land and roof-space for solar. While there’s the long-term potential for significant profit, cashflow considerations may be a short-term deterrent. 

To remove barriers and as a way of encouraging businesses to adopt solar and other sustainability and resilience measures, 51 councils across Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia have introduced Environmental Upgrade Finance (also known as Building Upgrade Finance). 

Environmental Upgrade Finance is a uniquely structured loan that can help farmers install solar power systems with no impact on cashflow. 

This type of finance is only available where there is an existing building or built structure, so ground-mounted arrays need to be connected to a building onsite, but it’s an excellent option for farmers to get started with solar on their property. 

Ed Cotter is the executive manager for Better Building Finance, who work with dozens of local councils and the Sustainable Australia Fund as Australia’s leading provider of Environmental Upgrade Finance. He said that cashflow positive loans are one way of taking the risk out of agrivoltaics. 

“We’ve had a number of agribusinesses benefit from the unique structure of this finance to install solar, as it doesn’t require upfront cash or capital, and is tied to the building instead of the owner,” said Mr. Cotter. “As the projects are designed to be cashflow positive, the businesses are usually seeing thousands of dollars in savings from the very first year. We’ve had multiple businesses say it’s a no-brainer.”  

Lettuce and salad mix farm Hussey & Co used Environmental Upgrade Finance to install both roof-mounted and ground-mounted systems. The solar upgrades saved over $86,000 per year in electricity costs; it also cut their annual carbon emissions by 754 tonnes, which is the equivalent of taking 161 cars off the road each year.

“We’re really excited about the future of agrivoltaics,” said Mr Cotter. “We want to support more farmers and agribusinesses to take the leap.”

With the discussions about land use, solar power and climate extremes heating up, the best opportunities will be those that are good for people (more resilient agricultural communities), planet (more renewable energy produced, with crops and livestock around the photovoltaics), and profit (more profitable, cashflow-positive agricultural enterprises). Why push for one great outcome, when you could have all three?

Robin Mellon is chief executive of Better Sydney, project manager for the Property Council of Australia’s Modern Slavery Working Group and Supplier Platform, and NSW program adviser for Better Building Finance. As well as an EV nerd.

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