The study found that agrivoltaics did not negatively impact—and in some cases even increased—crop yields, according to implementers. Photo: Σ64/Wikimedia Commons

Can agrivoltaics solve India’s rising need for land resources?

Agrivoltaics —the simultaneous use of land for both agriculture and photovoltaic power generation—offers a potential solution to the growing competition for land resources, finds a study 

Earlier this year, India took over China to become the most populous country in the world. It’s likely that in the future, many countries, including India, may witness growing competition for land resources between agriculture and renewable energy. Agrivoltaics—the simultaneous use of land for both agriculture and photovoltaic (PV) power generation—offer a potential solution. 

Illustration of a typical agrivoltaics system. Source

A new study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) looked at the potential of agrivoltaics for increasing crop yield and panel efficiency, making it an attractive option for farmers and solar developers. 

According to the study, agrivoltaics has grown swiftly across the world in recent years. India also is taking the first steps in its adoption, with more than a dozen pilot projects already deployed across the country. The study assessed the current state of development and identified the challenges and opportunities for the commercialisation of agrivoltaics in India. 

Agrivoltaics as a food–energy nexus approach to resource use. Source

Types of structure

The study mentioned that pilot projects in India—all of them open farming systems with crop cultivation—are mainly differentiated by their structure. There are two types: overhead PV and interspace PV. 

In overhead PV, the panels are mounted on an elevated structure, and the area beneath is used for cropping. The panels’ height is based on crop choices, ground-level light requirements, and operational requirements like moving agricultural equipment. Aquaculture, like shrimp farming, is also possible underneath the panels when it is set up over small water bodies. 

In the interspace PV arrangement, the PV panel is ground-mounted or close to the ground, and the gaps between adjoining rows of panels are primarily used for cultivation. Livestock grazing and aquaculture are also possible in this model. However, the crop choice is extremely limited in this case due to the height and shading constraints.

Results, challenges and opportunities

The study found that agrivoltaics did not negatively impact—and in some cases even increased—crop yields, according to implementers. But it also clarified that pilot projects in India have only tested agrivoltaics with a limited variety of crops and agricultural settings. Better-designed pilots with rigorous testing methods are required to build a strong knowledge base. 

According to the study, arid and semi-arid regions, as well as peri-urban areas, are likely to be favourable locations for agrivoltaics in India. The pilot projects in India and abroad indicated that arid and semi-arid regions may provide conditions that enable maximum synergy between agriculture and energy generation. At the same time, the study recommended exploring the agrivoltaics at peri-urban sites close to cities and towns with proximity to markets for high-value horticultural products. Access to technical and financial resources makes these areas ideal.

The study mentioned that state and central governments can support further pilots and facilitate innovations by forging partnerships with key stakeholders, co-creating legal and technical frameworks, and creating appropriate incentives. 

The key to the commercialisation of agrivoltaics, as per the study, lies in increasing its attractiveness through technological innovations and testing business models most viable in the Indian context. The study recommended that state governments reform land-use and tax regulations to support agrivoltaics, as well as develop consistent standards and definitions for agrivoltaics. Land-use and tax laws currently distinguish between agricultural and non-agricultural activities with associated restrictions on their use and tax benefits. Existing laws need to be amended to recognize and encourage businesses that may conduct both activities concurrently.

Clear definitions and standards for agrivoltaics are needed to ensure project developers, governments, and lending institutions have a shared understanding of the criteria that define such projects. This is particularly important to determine the eligibility for any subsidies or concessional financing in the future. However, the study added, there should be adequate safeguards and enforcement mechanisms to prevent developers from misusing the provision to circumvent land-use laws.

The study urged the states to think beyond the uniform ceiling tariff regime if agrivoltaics is going to be commercialised at scale. A single ceiling tariff across a state negates the locational advantage of agrivoltaics in areas with high land rent, noted the study. 

The study also mentioned some challenges noted so far. On the agricultural side, farmers’ safety concerns due to proximity to high-voltage cabling, as well as constraints on the mobility of farm equipment, are the main challenges. The major concerns for power production included the increased maintenance cost due to elevated structures, structural decay due to the humid microenvironment, and challenges in coordinating water management with farmers. 

The study highlighted that scientific design of an agrivoltaics system to ensure optimal sunlight distribution is a skill-intensive process. Similarly, crop management under shading conditions requires advanced skills among farmers. Also, co-management of resources can introduce managerial challenges. So capacity building would be critical in scaling up agrivoltaics. Therefore, states have a role in ensuring farmers and developers have access to information through training, professional networks and centres of excellence, the study concluded.