Interview in agrivoltaics with Andreas Steinhüser

Agrivoltaics: The Untapped Potential of the PV World - An Interview with Andreas Steinhüser

"Of all integrated PV approaches, agricultural PV technology has the most significant potential," says FraunhoferISE Agrivoltaic project manager Mr. Steinhüser.

Agrivoltaics: The Untapped Potential of the PV World - An Interview with Andreas Steinhüser

"Of all integrated PV approaches, agricultural PV technology has the most significant potential," says FraunhoferISE Agrivoltaic project manager Mr. Steinhüser.

Merve Özcaner - SEE Team

August 24, 2020

  • Hello, could you introduce yourself, please?

My name is Andreas Steinhüser. I have been working as a research scientist at FraunhoferISE in Freiburg for more than 30 years. Since this year, I have been working mainly on Agrivoltaics (APV) as a project manager in the PV-Power Plants group.

  • So, how does one get into APV? What was it like for you to discover this field? To me, this combination sounds like a futuristic, super smart and fantastic dream, yet here it is a reality!

For the last ten years, I have been working here at the institute, mainly on the worldwide inspection of large PV power plants. The aim was always to produce as much power as possible at low cost and reliably over many years. This goal was, and is, an essential and exciting activity to promote the worldwide solar power generation. In the last years, I had learned that there is a small group at our institute that tries to realize an agricultural use in the same area beside the power generation. This approach makes the already interesting photovoltaics even more exciting and useful, and I am delighted that I have the opportunity to work on this since this year.

  • What are some challenges and drawbacks in this area? Be it in terms of research or applications?

The particular challenge with APV technology is that the systems not only have to be optimized for power generation, as I knew from my previous work, but also that the requirements for agricultural use must also be taken into account.

Image by Science in HD from Unsplashed
  • Can you share a memory of a rewarding moment or a turning point you experienced working in the APV?

We are currently working on a so-called pre-standard for APV systems to ensure a high-quality standard for these systems in the future. This work is crucial and necessary, but from a practical point of view not very exciting. However, I was astonished to see the enormous response to this topic in the photovoltaic community. Many companies and institutions want to cooperate with us to be a part of the start-up in this exciting future technology.

  • I am curious to know more about the project to test the dual use of land for harvesting of solar electricity and agriculture. Namely, Agrophotovoltaics – Resource-Efficient Land Use (APV-RESOLA). The results in 2017 showed a land-use  efficiency of 160 per cent; and based on the 2018 potato yield, the land-use efficiency rose to 186 per cent per hectare with the agrivoltaic system. And you presented the results in a conference in Berlin in 2019 for the representatives from politics, ministries, and organizations. (1)

Does this field continue to operate APV? Has it inspired other local farmers and entrepreneurs? And what were the reactions like from the political figures?

The APV-RESOLA project is officially finished as a research project, but the APV system is still operated by the Hofgemeinschaft Heggelbach as planned. This project led to a lot of requests from the agricultural sector, but also from the photovoltaic industry. Although the project has now been officially finalized, we continue to receive many enquiries as to whether we can support the realization of similar projects. The support from the political side is not yet extensive. Politicians often say that they like the idea of dual-use of photovoltaic and agriculture. However, there is still no state funding for such systems.

Image by Fraunhofer ISE
  • Does APV work with all weathers, geographies?

In principle, APV systems can be used anywhere and in a wide range of weather conditions. In contrast to conventional photovoltaic systems, however, APV systems must be adapted much more to the conditions of the location. This applies in particular to the adaptation to the plants that are to be grown under the solar modules.

  • Which crops are suitable to grow under solar panels?

Here, it is especially important to consider which plants need how much sunlight. For the use of APV systems, crops such as apple orchards are particularly interesting, as it is possible to protect the apples from too much sunlight, heavy rain and hail. However, at the same time, enough light can still reach the apples by using specialized solar modules.

Apples are one of the many suitable crops that can be grown under solar panels. Image by Kaboompics from Pexels
  • Is APV eco-friendly? Can people grow organic food too?

APV is very eco-friendly, as no environmentally hazardous substances are used. Research projects are currently in progress to investigate whether the use of APV systems can also reduce the amount of pesticides used, as the solar modules also provide protection. The cultivation of organic food is possible without any restrictions and is already being carried out in some APV systems.

  • Is it affordable for a vast majority of farmers to implement this technology, or is it still expensive?

Unfortunately, APV technology is still more expensive than conventional photovoltaics at the moment in Germany due to a lack of subsidies. Therefore, most APV systems are used in research projects. However, this will change quickly once the legal framework for subsidies is in place.

  • Do you know where the largest APV field in the world is? Or which countries are working on APV extensively?

Most APV plants are currently located in China, Japan and South Korea. The world’s largest plant is located in China on the periphery of the Gobi Desert. Berries are grown there under solar modules with a capacity of 700 MWp.

The agrophotovoltaic system in Heggelbach near Lake Constance in Germany. Image © BayWa r.e.
  • Do you think a broader implementation and application of APV could be a solution for food and energy crisis? Especially for more vulnerable communities whose livelihoods are already being affected due to climate change.

APV cannot and will not be a unique solution to the food and energy crisis. But it offers excellent opportunities and has great potential. Of all integrated PV approaches, agricultural PV technology has the most significant potential. Only around four percent of Germany’s arable land would be sufficient to cover the entire current electricity demand in Germany (about 500 GW of installed capacity is required for this). In an initial estimate by Fraunhofer ISE of the technical potential for agricultural PV, this amounts to around 1700 GWp in Germany alone. The technology of APV could defuse a current conflict in densely populated countries: Should the already scarce arable land be used to produce food or solar power? The world population continues to grow, and with it, the demand for food. At the same time, the land is needed for the production of green electricity to overcome the climate crisis. The combination of agriculture and photovoltaics in the form of agricultural PV technology thus offers advantages for both sides. It can provide an adequate, resource-efficient solution to the problem of competition for land.

  • What are your expectations or some steps forward you want to see regarding APV?

My wish for the future is that simultaneous land use for food and energy production (APV) will be used wherever it makes sense. This also means that politicians should actively promote the APV, starting with the approval processes and extending to long-term support.

  • Thank you so much for your time and informative answers!
Disclaimer: This interview has been edited.

Author’s note: I would like to thank Maximilian Trommsdorff for making this interview possible.

Reference: (1) https://www.ise.fraunhofer.de/en/press-media/press-releases/2019/agrophotovoltaics-hight-harvesting-yield-in-hot-summer-of-2018.html

Further Reading: https://www.agrophotovoltaik.de/

https://www.ise.fraunhofer.de/en/key-topics/integrated-photovoltaics/agrivoltaics.html

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