Growing Crops Under Solar Panels? Now There’s a Bright Idea

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Heavy precipitation that can damage crops is also on the rise, since a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture. “In times when there is extreme heat or extreme precipitation, by protecting plants in this manner, it can actually benefit them,” says Madhu Khanna, an economist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who also won funding from the USDA’s new agrivoltaics grant. “So that's another factor that we want to look at.” 

Khanna will be studying what the ideal solar array might be for a particular crop, for instance, if it needs bigger or smaller gaps between panels to let sunlight pass through. Height, too, is an issue: Corn and wheat would need taller panels, while shrubby soybeans would be fine with a more squat variety. 

Thanks to those gaps, crops grown under solar panels aren’t bathed in darkness. But, generally speaking, the light is more diffuse, meaning it’s bouncing off of surfaces before striking the plants. This replicates a natural forest environment, in which all plants, save for the tallest trees, hang out in the shade, soaking up any sunbeams that break through. 

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Barron-Gafford has found that a forestlike shading under solar panels elicits a physiological response from plants. To collect more light, their leaves grow bigger ...

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