Greenhouse-based farming reportedly produces 10 times more food than growing in an open field, but it can require 10 times as much power. One of the latest innovations is a polymer film that selectively transmits the blue and red wavelengths that are needed for photosynthesis, while all other wavelengths are reflected and concentrated on solar cells for power generation. What impact could this have for greenhouse growers?
Researchers in the UK and Italy have found that orange-tinted solar panels allow orange and red light to pass through, while absorbing blue and green light to generate electricity. The team claims that its approach can produce crops that offer superior nutrition. According to the journal Advanced Energy Materials, the researchers grew basil and spinach in greenhouses in northern Italy using semi-transparent, orange-tinted solar panels in place of the traditional glass roofs. The yield of both crops was lower than for plants grown in normal greenhouses, but the agrivoltaic system was more profitable.
The combined value of the spinach and electricity produced was 35% higher than in a standard set-up, while the basil and electricity combination was worth 2.5% more. Basil sells for five times more than spinach, so the study showed that the greatest rewards for agrivoltaic greenhouses lie with lower-value crops. The researchers found that the basil produced larger leaves and the spinach longer stems, and both basil and spinach plants grown under the solar panels contained more protein than those grown in standard greenhouses.
A study by Brendan O’Connor and a team at North Carolina State University, reported in the journal Joule, looked at how much energy could be produced by installing solar cells on greenhouses, using similar filtering technology. They found that there are greater opportunities in hot and moderate climates. But because the cost of heating greenhouses is so high in colder climates, offsetting those energy costs is critical. If the solar cells can be designed to minimise losses in plant yield, there should be benefits across different climate zones, the study concluded.
Solar energy continues to excite the global market and, between agrivoltaics and floating solar solutions, one of the main challenges – finding available space for solar farm installations – should soon be a thing of the past.