Solar PV is a technology that has gone through various stages of development and maturity during the past few decades, even centuries. In the 1960s there was a significant boost in research focused on the dream of realizing technical solutions with potential global application of the famous photovoltaic effect that Becquerel discovered in the 1830s. That global development is what we are now witnessing — with more than 1 TW of solar capacity installed around the world.
This significant milestone was achieved in 2022 amidst new challenges and social demands for our industry. Whereas renewable energy has always being seen as one of the main drivers in the fight against climate change, the number of voices asking for stronger compatibility and the creation of synergies with other environmental agents grows every day. This is not a new story, hydropower promoters have tackled social integration for decades in the Americas, Southeast Asia and other regions. The fact that environmental and social awareness as well as joint value creation for all renewables technologies has now become a must in Europe is nothing but positive for society.
One of the areas where solar PV is growing most and can still explore further innovative solutions is land use integration with agricultural and cattle activities. Many countries already have relevant regulation that sets mandatory constraints in this area for new developments; many others positively assess these kinds of proposals when granting planning rights. Agri-PV is becoming a feature of Solar PV as much as tracking systems, bifacial panels, etc.. Not all plants include all of these proposals, but if they do, it is a winning combination.
When a new technical contribution becomes a trend or an applicable requirement, as Agri PV has, it is always interesting to do some historical research on the steps that have led that contribution to where it is now. This article does not aim to be a detailed and thorough analysis of the overall timeline of compatible land usage, but rather to point out some examples that can nurture this so-called new feature of solar PV technology. Looking back to the beginning of the 21st century in Europe, we experienced a boom in various renewable energy sources led mainly by solar and wind. At that time, projects were relatively small compared to today’s facilities (typical sizes ranging from 1MW to 10MW compared to the current 10 MW to 200 MW). They were sustained by feed-in tariffs or similar schemes, which still coexist today with other routes to market that are becoming more and more popular, such as PPAs or fully commercial enterprises.
A closer look at assets from that period in Spain allows us to identify an interesting portfolio owned by Velto Renewables. Amongst the 76 solar PV assets that Velto has in Spain, more than 10 plants — with a total capacity of approx. 50 MW — feature a use compatible with either agricultural, cattle feeding, or other relevant industrial activities. A couple of thousand head of livestock — sheep and cattle — are fed at Velto’s power plants. Focusing on pure agricultural synergies, Velto owns eight different power plants in the region of Murcia in Spain. These were built up to 2011 and produce more than 165 tons of two different kinds of grape every year. The grapes are internationally marketed for consumption by the local company Moyca. The eight plants are scattered throughout the municipality of Totana. This means that their landscape impact is relatively small, with a total distributed footprint of approx. 20 hectares. The technical design of these facilities includes elevated structures and a generous pitch that allows a
farming layout whereby the grapes are grown perpendicular to the PV strings. This minimizes interference between uses whilst maximizing coexistence benefits.
These projects, called “Totanas”, which have been operational for more than 10 years and will be running for at least two more decades, illustrate the history of agri-PV pioneers casting light and good practices for the future.