by Sophie Vorrath
Swedish multinational power company Vattenfall has unveiled plans to carry out a four-year pilot project in the Netherlands, looking at how a specially designed solar farm can be combined with Dutch strip farming practices.
The trial was announced by Vattenfall last week, off the back of the news that the company had received permission to test a combination of solar panels and organic crop cultivation at a site in Almere, east of Amsterdam, at a scale of around 700kW of PV capacity.
Vattenfall said it was working on the project with “other parties,” and with the backing of the Dutch government, to show how a combination of smart solar and farming practices could maintain land for food production – even improve it, ecologically – and deliver another income source for farmers.
The company said that findings of the so-called Symbizon project were particularly important to the Netherlands, where society “had reservations” about losing valuable agricultural land to solar generation – a concern that is starting to arise more often even in land-rich Australia.
“In the solar farm we alternate rows of panels with strips where various crops are grown for organic farming. This means that far fewer solar panels are being installed per hectare than is usual,” said Annemarie Schouten, Vattenfall’s head of solar development in the Netherlands.
“To ensure sufficient light yield, we use double-sided solar panels. They catch the reflected light from the soil, the crops and the adjacent rows and use it to produce solar energy. The panels also rotate with the sun to maximise yield.”
As part of the project, Vattenfall said a bespoke solar tracking algorithm was being developed by Dutch innovation outfit TNO, to track crop and energy yields and the effects of herb strips, weather forecasts, energy prices and soil conditions.
This algorithm would then be optimised, where possible, in cooperation with Vattenfall and Aeres University of Applied Sciences, a leading university of applied sciences for agribusiness and entrepreneurship in the Netherlands.
The impact of the solar tracking system on crop yield, diseases, and its ease of use for the farmer would be monitored by Aeres Hogeschool, ERF, a private organic farm in the Netherlands, and Hemus, an agricultural innovation outfit – both of which had extensive experience in strip farming.
Vattenfall’s Schouten said gaining approval for the pilot scheme by the Dutch government was a big step forward for the project, and that Vattenfall would now make a decision by the end of the year on its plans, with a possible start date in early 2022.
The trial coincides with the announcement of a much bigger “agrisolar” (or “agroenergy”) project in Europe – a plan to install 660MW of solar panels over 700 hectares of land in Serbia’s Vojvodina province, divided into seven zones for various organic crops.
The joint venture behind that project, Fintel Energija and agribusiness MK Group, say the project would install solar panels on around one-third of the total land area to generate about 832GWh a year, enough to supply 20,000 households, according to Balkan Green Energy News.
According to Fintel Energija and MK Group, combining solar panels with agricultural production creates a microclimate that increases the productivity of the crops and the efficiency of the energy production, while also further reducing emissions and water consumption for irrigation.
In Australia, the Clean Energy Council has called on the solar industry to work with Australian farmers to help solve the growing problem of grid access for new large-scale solar farms, as part of a recent paper published in promotion of agrisolar.
The push from the industry body comes as an increasing number of large-scale solar projects proposed for construction around the country meet opposition from locals over the loss of land previously used for farming or grazing.
The issue has become so prominent in Australia’s regional communities that the Country Women’s Association of Australia recently voted to call on governments to prevent solar farms from being developed in prime agricultural areas.
Like Vattenfall, the CEC paper argues that solar farms can improve both grazing and crop land, while allowing solar farms to be built in areas where the electricity network is strong, providing a win-win for both solar developers and farmers.
As RenewEconomy reported in March, the combination of solar farms with agriculture currently accounts for a small portion of Australia’s large-scale solar capacity: The CEC has identified 15 existing agrisolar projects totalling 1.1GW of capacity across Queensland, NSW and Victoria; the largest a 250MW project at Finley in southern NSW.
All of those projects, however, are “solar grazing”, the simplest form of agrisolar, which involves mixing mostly ground-mounted solar array with livestock – mostly sheep – grazing.