David Jung works in Fraunhofer Chile at the Center for Solar Energy Technologies. He is currently running several field projects on agrivoltaics near Santiago.
Read about how a young engineer from Germany ended up in Chile to work in the blooming agrivoltaics research projects!
You did an internship at Audi, and now you work on urban projects to develop solutions in agriculture, renewable energy. How do you feel about your journey when you look back working in the automotive industry whereas now you are working in renewable energy for a greener planet?
When I think back about my path, it is very different from what I did in its day-to-day work. When I was working in Audi, I did enjoy working on technical aspects of cars. But travelling to other places in the world and seeing different problems made me see the big picture, so to say. For instance, when I was studying in Cuba, I thought about the cars we were working on in Audi. They are not relevant in Cuba; the problems and needs were much different. I reflected on this then I realized I wanted to work on more critical issues of the world. I thought about what I could do as an engineer and concluded that no matter where you are in the world, everybody has basic needs of food, shelter, and energy (friendship, love, and more *laughs*). But as an engineer, I thought I could work on energy, and I was always interested in agriculture and food production. I also pondered on how agriculture has a significant impact on the way we use the world's sources. Honestly, I googled the words agriculture and energy together and came across with agrivoltaics! Then I found Fraunhofer Chile researched in this area, I applied there, and here I am.
What about the agrivoltaics studies do you enjoy the most? Because it is a very interdisciplinary subject, isn't it?
What I try to focus on is how we can provide solutions for agriculture because the solar industry is already in a good place. However, I think agriculture is still facing many difficulties. Even though it is the oldest industry that humans have invented and grew thanks to it, agriculture is still very fragile. For instance, we work with small farmers, and I see their struggles very up close. So, the specific topic I am interested in is investigating how we can install solar panels that support agriculture the most and make it more resilient in the face of various obstacles.
Could you tell us a bit about the three pilot projects that Fraunhofer Chile is conducting? How are they different? What are the challenges you face?
We have three power plants that are all technically the same: the number of panels, their PV capacity, and so on. They are all installed in the horticultural context in small farms, and they are the first in Chile. What we are doing first is to observe whether small farmers, as in these examples, can work with these structures on their farms like can he ride his tractor below the plant, can he irrigate the land without any problem. If they experience any problem, we seek practical solutions. We also look at the impact these plants have on the physical level, like how shading of the panels changes the temperature and humidity of the ground below the panels; we have measurement stations on the plants and soil, so we collect data. Since there are many variables, it is a highly complex process. We also face many new questions as we observe the power plants; for instance, we started a project to look at the soiling on solar panels. Especially in dry areas, there is more soiling than wet areas. We are now looking into how soiling is different in PV panels in an agricultural context than in typical power plants. Because a tractor working on the field, for instance, cause dust to arise and settle on the panels. Since soiling in the agricultural context affects production significantly, we are motivated to provide a solution to this; we are looking into ways that the irrigation water can have a double use to clean the panels, for instance.
So, what are the major differences among these projects?
What is different in this case is the orientation of the plants.
What kind of impact has the pandemic had on your work or these projects? We see that not all industries are impacted the same from this experience.
We were affected by it for sure. For instance, we could not see the plants for quite a while on-site, and even though we had a good connection with the farmers, they had different needs than us as researchers during this process. We could not be on the site for a while and had the project on hold; this was a negative impact. For the farmers, they could perhaps not go to the market to sell their products or work in groups. But one benefit they had was reduced energy bills, because the agrivoltaic plants did continue to generate electricity, which is auto-consumed by the farmers.
Your project (and many others) shows how vital it is to bring the rural and developing areas such an opportunity as agrivoltaics. On the other hand, I think it is an issue of trust and understanding what this is about from the farmer's perspective, right?
You are right, see, sometimes it is like two worlds collide. Agrivoltaics has great benefits if it is done right. For instance, in some rare cases, farmers think "they just want to use our land by paying us little but making a huge profit themselves." Because of land use, the PV sector does not have the best reputation in agriculture in some cases.
Which countries in the world do you think will benefit the most from the implementation of agrivoltaics – it could be both in terms of need and efficiency?
The concept's potential as a global benefit is not opening new land to use but using the existing land. For agriculture, I see immense potential in dry and sunny areas where agriculture suffers from the adverse effects of too much sun and massive dependence on artificial irrigation. There are many locations in the world with such characteristics.
Fraunhofer Chile offers services to help developing projects as far as I know, like analysis & strategy, project development, scientific support. Which part of this chain is most challenging to implement in the context of agrivoltaic?
The PV sector in Chile is booming and there are many traditional projects in development. However we see that suitable land for PV projects, especially in the region around Santiago becomes scarce, since agricultural land is protected. Consequently, many companies from the PV sector are showing great interest in agrivoltaics as a possible solution to obtain access to “new” land. Still, the biggest challenge right now is being able to convey agrivoltaic's potential for agriculture. We are elaborating a study on various crops and how they can benefit from PV panels. The agriculture sector must understand and trust to install PV panels on their land and see that they can benefit from it too. The Netherlands, for instance, has a successful example of this. Researchers there saw that farmers were using plastic covers to protect crops.They do not withstand strong winds; they need to be replaced every other year, whereas PV panels stay there for 25 years.
How long have you been in Chile now?
I arrived in August 2019 to write my thesis, which is about the economic aspects of agrivoltaics. I thought I would stay here six months and go back to Germany, but when presented with the opportunity to stay and work here, I took the jobin early 2020. Then I had to work in Germany, away from Chile, away from the power plants because COVID-19 happened. In October 2020, I returned to Chile.
How has it been for you to work between the two countries? You studied in Germany, wrote your thesis in Chile, started to work there but then again stranded in Germany due to the pandemic.
It has not been hard for me, but this year I have seen that sometimes not all the plans work out initially. Right now, I am happy with being in Chile to do this research; there is so much to be done! I hope in June and July; I will be able to come to Germany not only to visit my family but also to visit FraunhoferISE. So, I feel like I am taking the best experiences from both countries.
Have you adopted any new hobbies or habits during the lockdown?
I started cycling; I did longer tours in Germany, and here in Chile, I do it to get to know the country.
Now, coming back to you. Are you currently fully occupied with the project we mentioned, or do you have other plans or a dream project you want to execute in the future?
Right now, this project takes the most space in my mind. I am a mechanical engineer, and I work with agronomy experts; I learn a lot, and it is still a process.
Thank you so much. This was a very nice overview and enlightening conversation about agrivoltaics; I hope many students in renewable energy and agriculture areas take up on this trend and contribute to the field!