Davos Agenda

3 unusual ways renewable energy is giving farming a boost

Crops can be grown under solar panels in a practice known as agrivoltaic farming.

Crops can be grown under solar panels in a practice known as agrivoltaic farming. Image: Unsplash/VD Photography

Stefan Ellerbeck
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Davos Agenda

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  • The world’s food production system produces more than a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The United Nations says farming must become more sustainable in order to combat the climate crisis and feed a rapidly rising global population.
  • Farmers around the world are using renewable energy in innovative ways to cut costs and reduce their carbon footprint.
  • These include solar panels in sheep fields, geothermal energy to grow flowers and biogas to keep birds warm.

There will be 10 billion people in the world to feed by 2050, which will pose an “unprecedented challenge”, the United Nations warns.

The global food production system produces a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, studies show. And over 70% of these come from livestock and fisheries, crop production and land use. The rest comes from food processing supply chains related to packaging, transport and retail.

farming food system greenhouse gas emissions
Food production is responsible for at least a third of global GHG emissions. Image: Our World in Data

So how can the farming sector maintain, or even increase, productivity while also reducing emissions and becoming more sustainable? Here are three examples of renewable energy and agriculture working together.

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1. Biodiversity-boosting solar panels

Research has shown that solar panel arrays can have a positive effect on water-stressed land around them. A study in Oregon found that areas around panels were more than 300% more water efficient. Crops can also be grown under solar panels in a practice known as agrivoltaic farming.

However, they can also boost biodiversity. A four-year trial in Australia involving sheep farmers installing solar panels on their land has been hailed as a “complete win-win”, reports ABC News. The farmers have reported that the sheep’s wool has improved in both quantity and quality since the solar arrays were installed.

The sheep’s grazing has helped reduce grass growth, helping the panels from being obscured. They in turn provide shade which helps stop the soil being dried out.

"It is actually quite astonishing. Some of the sheep look fantastic. They're growing exponentially and the wool cuts are in the top 5% in the district,” wool broker Graeme Ostini told ABC.

A flock of sheep in a solar farm.
Sheep and solar panels work well together, studies show. Image: Pexels/Vincent Delsuc
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2. Geothermal greenhouses

Farms can use geothermal heat pumps, to both heat and cool buildings. They are able to exchange air and ground temperature all year round.

A family in the United States used a government grant to install renewable energy at their small flower farm. Rebecca Kutzer-Rice and her husband Mark Ginsberg say heating a greenhouse used to cost $1,000 a month using propane, but now costs just $100 a month using geothermal energy.

“During the day the greenhouse gets super hot ... and instead of just letting all that air vent out, the system actually captures it and pumps that heat back down into those pipes in the ground. And then at night when it’s super cold outside, it pumps the heat back into the greenhouse ... We’re pretty sure it’s the first geothermal greenhouse for cut flowers in the US,” the couple told NJ.com.

Figure showing the flow of heat energy in geothermal system.
Geothermal systems can regulate temperatures seasonally. Image: NCAT

3. Using biogas to heat a poultry farm

Biogas is a renewable source of energy derived from organic matter such as food and animal waste. It can be used for cooking and heating as a more sustainable and often cheaper alternative to natural gas.

A farmer in Bhutan decided to use biogas on his poultry farm to reduce his electricity bills, according to the ANI news agency. San Man Subba’s farm has 4,000 birds which need to be kept warm, especially during the winter months.

He uses manure from pigs and dairy animals to fuel his own on-site biogas plant. He says the savings he has made mean he hopes to use biogas to also heat his piggery farm.

“During one of the winter months I had to pay around $730 [for] an electricity bill. So, I had to think about an alternate way to warm up my poultry farm ... So, in this way, I can use the amount saved for other purposes,” he says.

Making agriculture fit for the future

New and sustainable technologies offer farmers a way to optimize results for both their businesses as well as the planet, according to an April 2022 insight paper from the World Economic Forum. Transforming Food Systems with Farmers: A Pathway for the EU says “climate-smart and regenerative agricultural practices and digital innovations already show great promise in helping to mitigate these trends of climate change and biodiversity loss.”

The report found that if an additional 20% of farmers in the EU adopted climate-smart agriculture, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by an estimated 6% by 2030. They could also restore the soil health of more than 14% of the EU’s total agricultural land, and add between $2bn and $10 billion annually to farmers’ incomes.

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Related topics:
Davos AgendaEnergy TransitionFood SecurityAgriculture, Food and Beverage
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