URBANA — Crops on the University of Illinois Energy Farm in Urbana will soon have some new neighbors: solar panels.

Armed with a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a UI-led team of researchers will take the next four years to study whether the crops/panels combo can not only co-exist but also be fruitful for farmers in terms of yields, energy production and profit.

This practice has a name: “agrivoltaics,” using the same land for agriculture and solar photovoltaic panels. It was conceived in the 1980s; the term was coined in 2011.

The UI-led agrivoltaics project, called “Sustainably Colocating Agricultural and Photovoltaic Electricity Systems,”or SCAPES, will get grant money from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture Sustainable Agriculture Systems program, as requested by UI’s Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment.

Madhu Khanna, the insitute’s assosciated director and a the College of ACES’ Distinguished Professor of in Environmental Economics, will serve as lead investigator. As she described it, with the increasing profitability of solar panels and the energy they produce, crops are in direct competition for land space with unimpeded sunlight.

Researching the optimal arrangement on a field could be a win-win for landowners and the world’s production of renewable energy, fighting the encroachment of climate change.

“There’s a lot we still do not know in terms of what should be the density and mix of panels and crops on a field and what type of panels we should have,” Khanna said. “We want to make this new system as compatible with existing equipment and crop varieties farmers are already using, to reduce that barrier to adoption.”

Project researchers will create and study these agrivoltaic arrays in two other environments, aside from the Energy Farm in Urbana: Colorado State University and the University of Arizona, which has Biosphere 2, the largest closed ecological system in the world.

Khanna, an economist by trade, will focus her initial analysis on the cost-benefit side for farmers. Her team includes a variety of professionals, like crop physiologists and solar engineers, along with UI Extension educator Dennis Bowman, who will help familiarize landowners with the practice.

Researchers from the University of Arizona, Colorado State University, Auburn University, the University of Illinois-Chicago and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory fill out the team.

While investigators discover how different crops can succeed with different panel patterns, they want the information to be financially feasible and practical.

“There’s going to be increased competition for land, and we can minimize the competition between food and fuel by doing this,” Khanna said. “We want to be able to demonstrate how it works to farmers, the solar industry, because we need to work together to make this happen.”

As Khanna suspects, some crops may benefit from the added shade solar panels provide at different parts of the day. They’ll analyze how corn, soybean, sorghum and a number of other crops succeed yield-wise in each environment, then use environmental modeling to extrapolate the findings across other areas, like the U.S. “corn belt,” she said.

The team plans to unveil an educational app for children to download and play with, which could show how agrivoltaic setups work compared to a classic crop or solar panel layouts.

The first step, in the spring: planting crops between the rows of panels at the UI’s own Solar Farm 2.0 and seeing how they do.

Some countries, Japan in particular, provide subsidies for this kind of in-field energy production. This is a chance for Khanna and her team of investigators to research the benefits Stateside.

“We’re so happy that we got funded we’ve got a really enthusiastic project team that are waiting to get started,” Khanna said. “We’re happy to be among the first in the U.S. to be investigating this.”

Distributed by AP Storyshare. Ethan Simmons can be reached at esimmons@news-gazette.com

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