It is becoming increasingly evident how the demand for resources such as food, water and energy in the world is constantly increasing due to the growing global population. According to the World Population Prospects 2019 report, it is estimated that by 2050 the world's population will increase to approximately 9.8 billion, almost 2 billion more than today . By the same year, food production will have to grow by 70%, mainly by increasing yields to meet growing demand . In addition to the above, the main challenges to ensuring global food security have also been identified as climate change, the reduction of planted areas and the use of food for industrial purposes .
Some facts about agriculture and its impact within agri-food systems.
Agriculture currently accounts for 70% of global freshwater use and 34% of land use, putting unsustainable pressure on our natural resources . Moreover, water use is 80-90% in the agri-food sector, including irrigation , . But irrigation-only amounts can be as high as 95% in some developing countries , . The use of fossil fuels within agri-food systems, while it has facilitated farm mechanisation, improved food processing and transport, and boosted fertiliser production, has introduced risks to food security and left much of the farming community behind, especially in emerging economies . Global food systems are responsible for between 25% and 42% of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions emitted during the production, processing, transport, packaging, consumption and disposal of food, according to a study conducted for the years 1990-2015 .
How are we doing on rural electrification? Impact of energy on the agri-food system
Indeed, energy is indispensable in all sectors of the agri-food chain, both directly (for production, processing and transport) and indirectly (for the manufacture of fertilisers, agrochemicals and machinery). Agri-food systems are responsible for about 30% of the world's total energy consumption . Energy is consumed not only in primary production, but also in secondary activities such as refrigeration, drying, storage, transport and distribution . Due to the global goals to achieve net zero emissions, the use of renewable energies in production systems will increase considerably. One of these is solar energy, as photovoltaic panels have become considerably cheaper in recent years , . However, the increasing advance and development of photovoltaic panels has drawn attention to their footprint on the land uses of large-scale photovoltaic installations . On the other hand, in terms of rural areas, there are a considerable number of people without access to electricity: 584 million people in the world, of which just over 75% are in Sub-Saharan Africa . Many of these remote areas depend on agriculture, livestock and tourism; in order to diversify the productive matrix of these areas, the use of renewable energies that can synergise with the original activities of each community is beneficial.
Agrivoltaics: What is it?
There are undoubtedly renewable energy proposals applied to agri-food systems that have the potential to ensure their resilience and reduce their emissions. One of these is agrivoltaics: a solution that focuses on maximising the yield of land used for agriculture so that it can also be used to generate renewable energy . Criteria such as range, type of PV system, type or method of placement of PV panels and mobility of them are used to classify and parameterise agrivoltaics . Among the main benefits is the generation of microclimates underneath the panels, as soil moisture conservation is ensured by the shading of the panels. The advantage of this is that PV panels in an agrivoltaic environment are significantly cooler during the day due to the presence of moisture in the soil, leading to increased yields in renewable energy production and longer irrigation water retention time in the soil due to the shading of the panels, as there is known to be a "heat island" effect attributed to the mass concentration of the panels, very similar to urban heat islands, which impairs their performance. Also, through agrivoltaic systems there is a prevalence of increased CO2 capture in crop production . Other advantages also include providing farm households with their own energy, solar pumping systems, generating income from the sale of the electricity generated and controlling the level of solar radiation on crops .
Relevant findings and potential for applications
Research in Germany shows that the yields of different types of crops, such as potatoes, celery or winter wheat, vary according to the amount of shading from solar panels and the climatic conditions in particular years. Based on this, it follows that the technical potential of agrivoltaics systems appears to be greatest in arid and semi-arid climatic regions of the world with limited water resources and high solar radiation. In these regions, agrivoltaics systems could reduce evapotranspiration and thus reduce irrigation needs, drought stress and soil degradation . Another study indicates that dual energy-food use of agricultural land would have a significant effect on a nation's PV production, with minimal impact on food prices. Research results showed an increase in PV power of more than 40 to 70 GW if only lettuce crops were converted to agrivoltaic systems in the United States, which is more than the entire US production at the time of the study's publication .
It is important to highlight that various energy efficiency and decarbonisation strategies are required in all segments of the food value chain. Increased use of renewables in this sector would support mitigation, while meeting energy needs in primary production, processing, storage, distribution, retail and even cooking.
Renewable energies undoubtedly have considerable versatility and a positive impact on different sectors of society. Through agrivoltaics, it is possible to improve the agricultural sector in countries facing water, energy or food insecurity. Therefore, agrivoltaics systems prevail as a very viable solution, not only in terms of increasing the yield of cultivated areas, but also in terms of ensuring food security in countries or regions facing climatic conditions with high temperatures or periods of drought, especially in rural areas that do not have access to electricity. Despite its clear advantages and benefits, more research still needs to be done to determine the yields of other crop types in areas where this system has never been implemented and to look for designs that guarantee yields under particular climatic conditions. This should also go hand in hand with financial incentives or subsidies to farmers in order to reduce installation costs, which are still relatively high.
Beyond mitigation, the integration of renewables into agri-food systems through agrivoltaics also strengthens adaptation, adding resilience to extreme weather events and resource scarcity caused by climate change . Agrivoltaics can also be coupled to a large extent with precision agriculture, for example, in determining the irrigation rate required for each section of the field or monitoring crop growth by controlling the shading of the panels .
Finally, it is important to highlight that, in the post-pandemic context and in the face of a coming food crisis , we must look for sustainable solutions that can positively influence each of the axes of the water-energy-food nexus.
Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
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Sergio Corilla is an undergraduate student of Electronic Engineering at PUCP. He’s founder of “Red de Jóvenes por la Transición Energética”. He was part of the Latin American Sustainable Energy Summit 2021 organizing team and national youth delegate for Pre-COP26. Currently, he is part of the Student Energy Fellowship program.