Kenya tests new solar panels to generate power and enhance food security

Thanks to a new method called "agrivoltaics."
Ameya Paleja
The uniquely arranged solar panels.Chloride Exide Ltd/The University of Sheffield

A multinational team of researchers is set to begin full-scale trials in Kenya to see if installing solar panels could help the country generate power as well as address food security issues. A previous smaller trial that ran for a year has shown promising results, The Guardian reported.

Solar panels have long been known to be capable of solving energy problems, especially in remote parts of the world. However, installing them on the ground takes away a critical resource: land. With climate change and a burgeoning population to feed, it is crucial that we retain arable land. Now, a new technique called agrivoltaics allows us to achieve both, grow crops as well as generate power on the same patch of land.

What is agrivoltaics?

In this method of agriculture, solar panels are installed in a field capable of growing crops with a slight difference. Instead of arranging the array of panels close to each other and on the ground, the panels are instead installed at a height with intentional spacing between them.

By doing so, a small portion of the arable land ends up being used to generate power while the rest can still be used to grow crops. Contrary to popular belief that shade from the panels can be a hindrance to growth, plants have shown improved survival as well as yields in such arrangements.

Researchers attribute this to better management of the stress that the Sun's heat puts on plants. Being placed in shade protects the plants from damage caused by high temperatures as well as ultraviolet light.

The Kenyan experiment

According to The Guardian report, crops such as cabbages, aubergine, and lettuce that were grown using agrivoltaics during a year-long trial in Kenya were bigger in size and even healthier. In addition to this, the arrangement also saved valuable water that would otherwise have been lost to evaporation from the soil as well as plants in the water-scarce regions.

The more favorable environment that is now available due to this arrangement can also be used to grow food crops that were previously unsuitable to the area. Alternatively, farmers can also choose higher-value crops to increase their incomes, said a press release from the University of Sheffield, U.K.

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Part of the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), the University of Sheffield is collaborating with a host of international institutes to conduct further trials to study the economic, social, cultural, and political factors that impact such a project. By working closely with people who will end up using the technology, the researchers want to design features that will help the users and then work with policymakers to eventually roll out the technology across East Africa and beyond, the press release said.

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