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USDA Funds ‘Agrivoltaics’ Project Led by iSEE, Education at Illinois Researchers

by Tony Mancuso, Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment / Oct 6, 2021

Professors H. Chad Lane and Samantha Lindgren

Professors H. Chad Lane and Samantha Lindgren are part of an interdisciplinary research team awarded $10M from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate the concept of agrivoltaics.

A new project led by iSEE Interim Director Madhu Khanna to optimize design for “agrivoltaic” systems—fields with both crops and solar panels—that maintain crop production, produce renewable energy, and increases farm profitability includes an education and outreach component led by College of Education faculty.

This $10 million, four-year project, funded through the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Sustainable Agriculture Systems program with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign as the lead institution, will study agrivoltaics in a variety of land types and climate scenarios (Illinois, Colorado, Arizona).

“For centuries, humans have used the benefits of the sun to produce food and energy — and only in recent decades has humanity turned to harvesting solar for renewable energy,” said Khanna, the ACES Distinguished Professor of Agricultural & Consumer Economics at Illinois. “But to produce solar energy at the utility scale is land intensive, and cropland is often the most suitable for this purpose.”

While solar has become more profitable for land use, concerns have arisen that it could cut into food production. And some counties have now prohibited large-scale photovoltaic arrays from replacing agricultural land.

“Agrivoltaics—co-locating energy and food production—has the potential to reduce this competition for land,” Khanna said. “Our proposed project for Sustainably Colocating Agricultural and Photovoltaic Electricity Systems (SCAPES) will provide a comprehensive analysis of the transformative potential of agrivoltaics. Our goal is to maintain or even increase crop yield, increase the combined (food and electricity) productivity of land, and diversify and increase farmers’ profits with row crops, forage, and specialty crops across a range of environments.”

"Agrivoltaics involves a lot more than just throwing some solar panels above your crops", said Lane, associate professor of Educational Psychology, Curriculum & Instruction, and Computer Science at Illinois. "There are interesting tradeoffs between crop needs, weather, and panel adjustments that make it a fascinating thing to learn about. We will develop a mobile app that allows people to learn about agrivoltaics through actively designing, simulating, and testing agrivoltaic farms." The app will be built in collaboration with Balance Studios in Green Bay, WI, and tested in the St. Louis Science Center and Indianapolis Children Museums, both of which already boast large exhibits devoted to agricultural science. "We will also work with Illinois Agriculture in the Classroom to create supporting materials for teachers to integrate into Illinois K-12 classrooms," said Lane.

"Sustainability education, at school and in informal settings, has never been more important than it is now," said Lindgren, assistant professor of Education Policy, Organization & Leadership. "The agrivoltaics app will introduce youth and their families to sustainable energy and food production systems – both global grand challenges – highlighting the innovative nature of agriculture and the need for systems-thinking."

Illinois agrivoltaics investigators include Khanna; Carl Bernacchi, USDA Agricultural Research Service Plant Physiologist; Bruce Branham, Professor of Crop Sciences; Evan H. DeLucia, Arends Professor Emeritus of Plant Biology; D.K. Lee, Professor of Crop Sciences; Kaiyu Guan, Associate Professor of Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences; H. Chad Lane, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology, Curriculum & Instruction, and Computer Science; Nenad Miljkovic, Associate Professor of Mechanical Science & Engineering; Samantha Lindgren, Assistant Professor of Education Policy, Organization & Leadership; Nuria Gomez-Casanovas, Visiting Research Specialist at iSEE; and Bin Peng, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

The Illinois team will partner with Dennis Bowman at the U of I Extension for agrivoltaics outreach activities. Additionally, the grant features a combination of research, education, and extension subawards for the University of Arizona, Colorado State University, Auburn University, the University of Illinois Chicago, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Learn more at the iSEE Agrivoltaics project webpage...