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Agrivoltaics Provide Mutual Benefits Across the Food-Energy-Water Nexus in Drylands

Researchers present here a novel ecosystems approach—agrivoltaics—to bolster the resilience of renewable energy and food production security to a changing climate by creating a hybrid of colocated agriculture and solar PV infrastructure, where crops are grown in the partial shade of the solar infrastructure. They suggest that this energy- and food-generating ecosystem may become an important—but as yet quantitatively uninvestigated—mechanism for maximizing crop yields, efficiently delivering water to plants and generating renewable energy in dryland environments. We demonstrate proof of concept for agrivoltaics as a food–energy–water system approach in drylands by simultaneously monitoring the physical and biological dimensions of the novel ecosystem. We hypothesized that colocating solar and agricultural could yield several significant benefits to multiple ecosystem services, including (1) water: maximizing the efficiency of water used for plant irrigation by decreasing evaporation from soil and transpiration from crop canopies, and (2) food: preventing depression in photosynthesis due to heat and light stress, thus allowing for greater carbon uptake for growth and reproduction. An additional benefit might be (3) energy: transpirational cooling from the understorey crops lowering temperatures on the underside of the panels, which could improve PV efficiency. We focused on three common agricultural species that represent different adaptive niches for dryland environments: chiltepin pepper (Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum), jalapeño (C. annuum var. annuum) and cherry tomato (Solanum lycopersicum var. cerasiforme). We created an agrivoltaic system by planting these species under a PV array—3.3m off the ground at the lowest end and at a tilt of 32°—to capture the physical and biological impacts of this approach. Throughout the average three-month summer growing season we monitored incoming light levels, air temperature and relative humidity continuously using sensors mounted 2.5m above the soil surface, and soil surface temperature and moisture at 5-cm depth. Both the traditional planting area (control) and agrivoltaic system received equal irrigation rates, and we tested two irrigation scenarios—daily irrigation and irrigation every 2d. The amount of incoming photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) was consistently greater in the traditional, open-sky planting area (control plot) than under the PV panels. This reduction in the amount of incoming energy under the PV panels yielded cooler daytime air temperatures, averaging 1.2+0.3 °C lower in the agrivoltaics system over the traditional setting. Night-time temperatures were 0.5+0.4 °C warmer in the agrivoltaics system over the traditional setting (Fig. 2b). Photosynthetic rates, and therefore growth and reproduction, are also regulated by atmospheric dryness, as represented by vapour pressure deficit (VPD) where lower VPD indicates more moisture in the air. VPD was consistently lower in the agrivoltaics system than in the traditional growing setting, averaging 0.52+0.15 kPa lower across the growing season. Having documented that an agrivoltaic installation can significantly reduce air temperatures, direct sunlight and atmospheric demand for water relative to nearby traditional agricultural settings, we address several questions regarding impacts of the food–energy–water nexus system.