Agrivoltaics Could Solve the Land Scarcity Problem for Solar Installations

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In India, agriculture plays a critical role in the economy, with nearly 60% of its land under farming and almost 300 days of sunshine every year. The country has an excellent opportunity to emerge as a global leader in agrivoltaics.

Agrivoltaics is the simultaneous use of land for both solar power generation and agriculture.

In India, conversations have just started on adopting agrivoltaics to solve the rising need for land to ensure both food and energy security.

The inter-disciplinary nature of this business proposition is making adopting agrivoltaics a global challenge. Despite the challenges, several entrepreneurs are giving it a shot.

Shravan Sampath is one such entrepreneur in Delhi who has set up a 110 kW capacity agrivoltaics project in a fruit orchard and is in the process of setting up another project of similar size now.

His insights capture the challenges in a nutshell. “The elevated structure for agrivoltaics requires steel. Steel prices will keep the cost of agrivoltaics high,” Shravan told Mercom. “Another factor is that entrepreneurs like me are asked to set up solar installation and leave the farming to others. That is not pragmatic. Both have to be done by a single stakeholder.”

The total number of documented agrivoltaics projects across the country is still in double digits and may cross the 100-mark next year. A report on Agrivoltaics in India published by Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis points in this direction.

The agrivoltaics project implemented by the Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI) in Sitapur town in Rajasthan is a pilot for many arid regions. Rishi Singh, one of the farmers who benefited from agrivoltaics in Sitapur, says, “This is a Godsend. I got a good wheat harvest after a long time because of the agrivoltaics method.”

In a land where crops were devastated by high temperatures, the photovoltaic solar panels have given the much-needed shade and saved the crops. “Arid regions across India will benefit from agrivoltaics. It is a win-win for the farmers and the government. CAZRI has demonstrated it through pilot projects,” says an official of CAZRI.

In an agrivoltaics project maintained by the Gujarat State Electricity Company Limited (GSECL) in the Jamnagar district of the state for the last three years, several crops, including ladyfinger (okra), bottle gourd, coriander, and cluster beans, were cultivated successfully during summer. And tomato, cucumber, zucchini, and chilies were cultivated during winter.

Cables were laid at a depth that doesn’t restrict regular field plowing in this plant. The 1 MW power generated by this plant is sold to the Gujarat power distribution company (Gujarat Urja Vikas Nigam) through a 20-year power purchase agreement (PPA).

Vikash Sharma, an entrepreneur in Himachal Pradesh, is running a 250 kW solar power project in a 2.2-acre field. He has no regrets as he enters the fourth year of operations. “Garlic, onion, pepper, and brinjal were cultivated. The return on investment (RoI) is in the range of 8 to 10%,” he told Mercom. According to him, a good working relationship with farmers is a prerequisite for solar entrepreneurs to make these projects viable. He is optimistic about the future of agrivoltaics in India.

In the 105 kW agrivoltaics plant developed by CAZRI in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, electricity generation yields more money than agriculture. Mungbean, moth bean, cluster bean, isabgol, cumin, chickpea, aloe vera, sonamukhi, sankhpuspi, chili, cabbage, onion, and garlic were cultivated in this field. CAZRI officials said that they would eventually make it viable by consistent action on the ground.

The 1 MW agrivoltaics system at the Mahindra Susten plant in Telangana yields 60 to 70 liters of lemongrass crude oil from the one-acre cultivated area. Annatto dye, brinjal, lady finger, green chili, and onions were also cultivated here.

Mahindra Susten officials say the panels were mounted sufficiently high to allow the crops planted below to receive as much sunshine as they would if the panels were not there. They express confidence that this system could be a role model.

“Land is a limited resource, and solar capacity addition in India requires large tracts of land. As we have land ceiling acts in place in several states, the only path forward is the double usage of land for agriculture and solar power generation. That is where agrivoltaics acquires importance,” says Shravan Sampath.

Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis says that agrivoltaic installed capacity has grown from about 5 MW in 2012 to approximately 2.9 GW in 2021 across the globe. Per IEEFA, India’s renewable energy and food security needs have made agrivoltaics a practical option in the long run.

The momentum has just begun for agrivoltaics in India. The lessons acquired in the pilot projects across India will go a long way in implementing future projects. Viability gap funding with a relevant policy framework and banking infrastructure in the initial years would accelerate the growth of agrivoltaics.

“The Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy should come together and derive a policy framework to incentivize agrivoltaics,” Akhilesh Kumar, an expert in agriculture and adviser to many government agencies, said. “The data from the existing agrivoltaics projects across India should be compiled and made accessible to the farmers and the solar entrepreneurs.”

According to him, the bright side in this long journey of agrivoltaics is the coming together of farmers and solar energy entrepreneurs. He suggests a transparent conversation on the existing data from different regions and the support to be extended by the governments.

Experts point out that in the long run, the Prime Minister’s KUSUM (Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan) project’s success could augur well for agrivoltaics. “KUSUM has solarization of agriculture pumps as the third component. If it catches up, it will gradually lead to a favorable mindset for adopting agrivoltaics,” says a government agricultural official in Gujarat.

Officials across India who spoke to Mercom admit to the fear in the farming sector about the possible loss of subsidized electricity in case they accelerate the solarization of agricultural infrastructure. “The fear element should be addressed by consistent communication with the stakeholders,” says Akhilesh Kumar.

Shravan Sampath feels that solar energy entrepreneurs may find it challenging to work with farmers in the initial years. “The solar energy entrepreneurs may expand their bandwidth to understand and practice agriculture over time,” he says. The existing conflict or tension between farmers and solar energy entrepreneurs may take years to resolve. “It is the sentiment of ownership that comes in the way of solarization reforms. With real-time, long-term benefits data, agrivoltaics can be sold to Indian farmers,” says a confident Kumar.