A bountiful harvest: Agrivoltaics blends solar energy with agriculture in innovative research project at University of Missouri

New demonstration site at South Farm to study the integration of solar energy production and livestock grazing.

As solar-generated electricity is increasing, some landowners are pondering converting land used to produce food to land used to produce energy, but what if they could do both? What if they didn’t have to choose?

Agrivoltaics is a new concept that blends solar energy production with agricultural uses like row crops or pastureland, and researchers at the University of Missouri’s Central Missouri Research, Extension and Education Center (CM-REEC) are looking to answer many questions about the new practice with its new demonstration site.

A herd of sheep grazes among solar panels at a farm practicing agrivoltaics.

“As a research institution, we are looking at this as an opportunity to showcase technology and environmental stewardship,” said Dusty Walter, CM-REEC director. “It’s going to be a great way to educate the public about the possibilities to integrate climate smart, environmentally friendly power production with food production.”

The demonstration site will focus on the potential to graze animals under solar panels, which will be configured differently to accommodate the dual usage. The field will feature solar panels spaced further apart and mounted much higher than traditional solar field panels. This will allow space for the livestock and machinery needed to maintain the pasture below as well as allow sunlight to reach grasses while also providing shade to the animals.

Walter noted that the setup is similar in concept to silvopasture — the integration of trees in pastures.

The specially-designed solar panel layout will produce power and facilitate light reaching the grass.  With space between the panels, the patches of shade will move as the sun moves across the sky.  While the panels move to track and capture maximum light, the shade will create an area of pasture that reduces animal stress over summer months.

The demonstration site will be located at South Farm just outside of Columbia, Mo., and is part of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ (CAFNR’s) new Digital Agriculture Research and Extension Center (DAREC). The goal is to provide farmers with data-driven information about the emerging technology while giving them an opportunity to visualize what the configuration may look like on their own land.

“This is going to add to the opportunities we have to showcase technology — to showcase environmental impact,” Walters said. “For agriculture, it’s an opportunity to show how ag can drive energy production. With crops you have the potential to produce biofuels. In Missouri, cattle farms are going to have potential for solar production.”

Researchers will be collecting data to analyze multiple aspects of the demonstration site including animal performance, forage and grass performance and energy production.

The demonstration site is expected to be complete by mid-summer 2024 and will be among the first agrivoltaics research sites in the nation and the first in Missouri. It will also be available for educational experiences for undergraduate and graduate students.

The CM-REEC is composed of 14 different properties and covers approximately 7,200 acres in the central part of Missouri. With diverse interests that cover and include natural areas (Baskett Forest, Sorenson Estate, and Land of the Osages Research Farm), crop ground (Bradford Research Farm and others), a dairy herd (Foremost Dairy Farm), beef cattle and swine (South Farm), specialty crops (Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Farm), and historic sites (Sanborn Field and the Duley-Miller Erosion Plots), the CM-REEC is unique in the support it offers to research, Extension and public engagement.