Community agrivoltaics – A new application of social and climate justice

by | Feb 25, 2024 | Articles

H Ελληνική Έκδοση στο…

The recent demonstrations of farmers, from Poland and France to Greece, bring back to the public debate the urgent need to (re)develop our agricultural policy. From the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and the imbalanced farmer-agro-industry power relations in supply chains, the issue is multifaceted. Let us focus on one aspect of it: access to cheap – and clean – energy. The dependence of agricultural production on fossil fuels (see motorization, equipment, irrigation) puts a significant burden on the budget of the farmers themselves, and also leads to revaluations (see the ‘fossilflation’ phenomenon) in the supply chain – with consumers as the ultimate ‘victims’.

Subsidies for solar projects by farmers, a policy with years of implementation in Greece and Europe, can provide an additional income stream, while at the same time significantly alleviating a farmer’s operating costs. Supporting farmers to engage in RES projects (e.g., photovoltaics or biomass) is therefore a clear win-win solution for society and the climate. But could we move the equation one step further?

Agrivoltaics: combined and more efficient use of space

Meeting national (and EU) climate targets will require massive investment in new renewable energy systems. In particular, the Revised Renewable Energy Directive provides for a significant increase in the share of renewables in the energy system, while establishing “Renewable Energy Acceleration Areas” (Article 15c). At the same time, the Nature Restoration Regulation provides for the protection and restoration of 20% of the land and seas of each Member State. As a result, the next decade will be defined by increasingly intense conflicts and disputes over the use of an otherwise finite resource: land. Research by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center has shown that if we covered 1% of Europe’s agricultural land with agrivoltaics, we could produce 1TW of energy – thus exceeding the EU targets for solar energy by 2030, without compromising agricultural production.

Widely used in countries such as France, Spain and Germany, the term “agrivoltaics” describes the combined production of energy and food on a specific plot of land. The benefits are numerous: some crops (e.g., tomatoes and potatoes) perform better in lower temperature and shade conditions, which is what the installation of elevated photovoltaic systems can provide. Transpiration from the crops meanwhile helps to reduce the temperature of the photovoltaics, thus increasing their efficiency. The panels can be moved dynamically, for example to allow rain to pass through to the ground thus watering the crops, or horizontally to reduce hail damage or to regulate the soil temperature depending on the weather. The combined use of land also benefits biodiversity. 

Some practical applications in Greece

Two interesting initiatives come to combine technological innovation with social innovation and highlight through practical applications a new paradigm of land use, aiming at strengthening the agri-food sector and empowering local rural communities.

In Ioannina, the first urban community agrι-photovoltaic project in Greece is already being planned and a replication will follow in Skopje, North Macedonia. It is an urban vegetable garden that will be combined with the production of clean energy from special photovoltaic panels. The pilot will be coordinated by the local energy community CommonEn and the design will follow participatory procedures with the involvement of citizens and local stakeholders. The project is primarily funded by the German Federal Foundation for Environment (DBU) and co-funded by the Onassis Foundation. In parallel, the project is supported by the Municipality of Ioannina and the Solar Hub project.

The Solar Hub project is a Greek-Turkish Excellence Hub that aims to promote solar energy technologies, with a focus on agrivoltaic and solar thermal systems and their applications in the agri-food sector. The Greek ecosystem, coordinated by the Centre for Research & Technology Hellas (CERTH), promotes networking, solution development, training, and knowledge transfer activities.

A Holistic Approach

At the state level, the ongoing revision of the National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs) across Europe, as well as the upcoming law on agri-photovoltaics (in Greece), should foresee support measures for such projects developed specifically by energy communities and other collective schemes. Promoting social and technological innovation can provide incentives, especially for young people, to return (or remain) in rural areas, thus also contributing to reversing population desertification.

CommonEn’s project in Ioannina will be small in size but large in symbolic value. It reflects the view that environmental solutions must include elements of social and economic justice – only then will they be socially accepted. Solutions and policies in the context of a holistic planning for rural development should be co-designed by farmers and local communities in the countryside themselves, and should be co-owned by them – as can be done through energy communities.

Christos Vrettos, Electra Energy, European Federation of Citizen Energy Cooperatives (REScoop.eu)

Dimitris Kitsikopoulos, Electra Energy 

H Ελληνική Έκδοση στο…