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This Kenyan community is growing food under solar panels

A flower growing under a solar panel, known as agrivoltaics
Picture: Pixabay

In the remote Kenyan town of Insinya, farming, electricity production and water conservation go hand in hand.

It’s a model that’s showing significant promise as the world races to tackle climate change and meet its ever-growing food needs. Both endeavours require substantial land resources – so why not combine them?

The project in Insinya is delivering solid results. A collaboration between local and foreign research organisations, farmers and energy professionals, the facility is reportedly raising crop yields while producing cheap electricity and harvesting rainwater. That’s a triple win for a country short of electricity and water, but rich in sunshine.

Rather than using panels mounted close to the ground – as is the case with traditional solar-only projects – agrivoltaic systems raise them several metres on steel frames.

The panels cast a shadow on the crops below, making these systems perfect for fruits and vegetables that don’t like too much sun – think grapes, kiwis, cabbages, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, strawberries and blueberries.

Some farmers are also using solar panels to provide shade for their livestock or aquaculture facilities.

Agrivoltaics make a whole lot of sense for water-scarce nations, including South Africa – which, incidentally, also needs all the electricity it can get.

Eskom, the state-owned power utility that can barely keep the lights on, is planning an agrivoltaics project at its Komati coal-fired power station, which reached its end of life in 2022.

To retain jobs there, a number of mini-projects are on the go, including the 500KW agrivoltaic pilot project, which could be expanded if it proves to be successful.

Last year, French renewable energy company CVE said it was in talks with a few South African groups about doing something similar. It already operates a 2.55MW agrivoltaics project in the South of France.

South African group Altum Energy is moving into this space as well, in partnership with horticultural experts and a company that builds the structures.

Co-founder and director Gordon Brown tells me that with agrivoltaics, a 100-hectare piece of land that was previously under-utilised, or not used altogether, can now generate up to 56MW of electricity while also producing high-value crops. The energy generated can be used on the farm to power irrigation systems, and exported into the grid if the local substation has capacity.

Since the panels are raised, they don’t heat up as much as ground-mounted ones, making them more efficient. They’re also high enough that tractors can easily drive through the tunnels, and can be raised further for crops that need more space, such as macadamias. 

By having greater control over the irrigation process – these systems are well suited to using suspended sprinklers or drip irrigation – and by preventing heat stress, yields and the quality of the produce can be improved, Brown says.

And how’s this for a stat: A study by Max Bryan Barantandikiye found that if South Africa’s grape farms used agrivoltaic systems – a purely hypothetical scenario – they would collectively produce around 0.7% of South Africa’s electricity needs. Another study found that agrivoltaic projects could, in theory, cover all of Africa’s electricity requirements.

It’s encouraging then that South Africa’s leading agricultural economists and experts, including Wandile Sihlobo, are taking this concept seriously. Peter Johnston, a climate scientist at the University of Cape Town, says agrivoltaics are “a great idea and eminently feasible”.

Some good-news headlines:

  • A record $495 billion was invested in renewable energy in 2022
  • Portugal will write off the debts owed to it by Cape Verde – provided the African island nation spends the money on environmental measures
  • The African Union is expanding a programme that aims to plant millions of trees on the continent – the Great Green Wall
  • This chemical process renders all existing wind turbine blades recyclable
  • For the first time, investments in clean energy have matched fossil fuels

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