Transparent solar panels on greenhouses can help farmers reduce their carbon footprint

More fruit using less land is possible using more solar power.
Derya Ozdemir
Photovoltaic panels on greenhousJenson/iStock

A team of researchers at the University of Greenwich and farmers are attaching transparent panels to the walls of glasshouses to see whether we can build a solar power supply without needing more land.

There are few greater bargains than a solar-powered greenhouse. As the greenhouse nurtures plants and fruits, the energy created under the blinding sun can be used to power automatic watering systems and temperature-control equipment, according to an initial report on The Guardian. Workers living in farms could benefit from the generated energy as well. 

Hugh Lowe Farms in Kent, which supplies fruit to the annual tennis tournament and major supermarkets, is currently hosting a study on this, which basically means those watching the Wimbledon tennis tournaments this month will enjoy one-of-a-kind strawberries from a unique origin.

Building a solar-powered greenhouse

The United Kingdom wants to increase energy production in the face of the energy crisis and the war in Ukraine, which are putting pressure on domestic energy supplies.

In fact, by 2035, the country wants to increase solar output five-fold to 70 gigawatts, which explains why the solar-powered greenhouse trial that started late last year received £250,000 in government funding. In addition to helping the world by generating renewable energy, having your own power source is especially critical for farms because they're usually in remote areas.

And, beside its energy ramifications, transparent solar panels over greenhouses might be considered a good deal for the residents who don't like seeing solar panels covering the countryside. This also means farmers can plant crops in places where there might have been solar panels.

"The public understandably never want to see land covered in solar panels so this is a pragmatic way to retrofit solar on to existing structures," Elinor Thompson, a photosynthesis researcher from the University of Greenwich who is leading the research, said to The Guardian. "It’s helping farms to reduce their carbon footprint, which supermarkets are keen to see, and the government also wants the U.K. to reduce its carbon footprint as a whole."

Generating electricity while growing crops

For the project at Hugh Lowe Farms, researchers mounted semi-transparent vertical photovoltaic panels to the sides of the glasshouse and through the roof, a press release by the university explained. This enables some light to get through to the fruits, which were unaffected by the presence of the existing panels, according to the researchers. 

The trial will be expanded to include flexible panels connected to the sides of polytunnels and conclude next spring. Then, the researchers may follow it up with another study aimed to see whether the technology can be replicated at a larger scale.

Thompson also wants to study how colored panels affect fruits, as, for example, light coming through orange-colored panels could make plants more leafy. Imagine the possibilities!

This is one of the latest examples of solar panels making themselves a better fit for the agricultural landscape. After all, while solar power can provide environmental benefits, this may come at the cost of diminished agricultural production. There is research into this as well: Over the past four years, Australia has had better and more wool produced by sheep grazing under solar panels.

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