Illustration of a solar panel above a farmer digging up crops.
Illustration: Rosie Barker

In 2021, Wisconsin reported having 14.2 million acres of farmland. What if all that land could be used to mitigate climate change? Emily Mather, a graduate student in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, is trying to find the answer. As part of the UW–Madison Agrivoltaics Project, Mather and a team of researchers are positioning solar panels between or above agricultural activities like growing crops or grazing animals. The goal is to increase the productivity of land by harvesting crops and creating renewable energy at the same time.

“The idea of this project is to better understand how we can best use the land in Wisconsin for both energy production and agriculture,” says Mather. “The climate benefit of that is we produce renewable energy, but we are not sacrificing in terms of crop production. We want to prepare Wisconsin and the Midwest for both an energy-and a food-secure future.”

The stakes could be high. Agriculture uses an immense amount of resources and with a growing global population that is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, future sustainability is a serious concern. Faced with possible food shortages and limited resources, experts are looking to agrivoltaics as a possible solution to maximize the benefits from farmland while cutting down on carbon emissions and preserving groundwater levels. Solar energy production continues to grow as the price of producing it continues to drop. It can also be highly productive at a large scale.

But this project’s goals span more than curbing carbon emissions and producing clean energy. In areas where groundwater has been depleted due to agricultural activity, the group looks to research possible groundwater recharge benefits provided by shade from the solar panels.

Plants lose water in the form of water vapor, and warmer temperatures mean more water loss. Having solar panels that protect crops from harsh sunlight could reduce the amount of water needed to keep them alive and maintain groundwater levels. Irrigation alone is responsible for about 85% of global water consumption, and as the demand for food production increases, so will global water consumption.

Mather and her team received the Research Forward grant from the University and decided to add an agricultural element to solar arrays being built at the UW–Kegonsa Research Campus this fall. This system is more often used in dryland areas but has not been extensively researched in Wisconsin or, more broadly, the Midwest. This project looks to fill in those gaps, so researchers can better understand the impacts and benefits of agrivoltaics in Wisconsin’s climate and soil.

“It’s important to remember that climate change doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all solution,” says Mather. “Different places have different challenges and advantages for different types of renewable energy. This study is important because it’s helping us understand whether agrivoltaics is something that will work in Wisconsin and what benefits we can get from it here.”

Mather saw this project as an opportunity to combine her longtime passions of renewable energy and hands-on field work. Her mechanical engineering background and current pursuit of an advanced degree in atmospheric science bring a unique perspective to a complex issue.

Mather and her team will collect their first crop and energy measurements in fall of 2024, following the first full growing season featuring the solar panel arrays. The Research Forward grant runs through 2025, and Mather is hopeful that the first round of results will inspire further funding.

“There is no silver bullet solution to climate change or energy security issues. We need to exercise all our options in order to get to net zero emissions,” says Mather. “The faster we can reduce our carbon emissions the better. The longer we wait, the more implications we will have related to climate change.”

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