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The University of Alberta’s agrivoltaics research unlocks dual benefits of solar farms: improved energy efficiency and potential for crop growth.

A groundbreaking research project from the University of Alberta is unlocking the dual potential of solar farms, aiming to boost the benefits of green energy by merging agriculture and photovoltaics. The practice, known as agrivoltaics, involves planting crops beneath solar panels to improve the land's utilization and energy efficiency. In this case, the researchers tested spinach growth under different solar panels.

Soil scientist Guillermo Hernandez Ramirez, from the U of A's Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences, believes the approach could be a game-changer. The study compared the growth of spinach in three conditions: under thin and thick solar panels, and without cover. The results were promising, with spinach under solar panels consuming up to 17% less water. While growth was slower, the plant's overall health remained stable.

Moreover, the plants helped to cool the area under the panels, consequently improving the solar panels' efficiency. This synergetic process signifies a step towards greater efficiency in land use, addressing both energy transition and food security challenges.

Spinach isn't the only thing that can thrive on a solar farm.

In 2012, Janna Greir and her husband Ryan started Whispering Cedars Ranch near Strathmore, Alta. Last year they moved 450 sheep to a graze at Strathmore Solar, a 130-hectare project run by Edmonton-based Capital Power.

The flock returned to the solar farm in May. The sheep will be there until October, offering affordable and effective lawn maintenance. In turn, the solar panels will give the animals shade while they graze.

It's not just spinach that can co-exist with solar farms. Since 2012, Whispering Cedars Ranch near Strathmore, Alta, has used solar farms as pastures for their sheep. This technique provides affordable and effective lawn maintenance and shade for the grazing animals, further strengthening the agrivoltaic approach.

The American Solar Grazing Association, established in 2018, has been encouraging such initiatives, though it's relatively new in Alberta. The owners of Whispering Cedars Ranch have now begun receiving interest from other solar projects and farms.

Hernandez Ramirez anticipates that his research could lead to an expansion in the variety of crops grown on solar farms, thereby making agrivoltaics accessible to communities across the country. According to CBC News, this innovative approach could not only reinforce the connection between people and their food and energy sources but also alleviate the pressure on agricultural land from solar farms.

Eunice is a sustainability writer whose passion is sharing accessible eco-friendly practices with GreenCitizen's global readership. She enjoys birdwatching during her downtime, often deriving inspiration from nature's resilience. An enthusiastic cyclist, she is also an ardent advocate of eco-friendly transport.

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