90: A Growth Industry? Talking about Agrivoltaics
Matt and Sean (and special guest Rob van der Wouw) talk about the impact and hurdles to incorporating solar energy production into agricultural production.
Hi everyone welcome to the still to be determined
podcast. This is the podcast that follows
up on topics from the Youtube channel undecided
with Matt ferrell I as you may know already
am not Matt ferrell I'm sean ferrell I'm Matt's
older brother I'm a writer and I'll be asking
the questions with me is of course matt.
Matt say hello. We also have a another guest
with us today. It's rob van der weil rob say
hi and people who are regular listeners or
viewers are probably scratching their heads
Hi there Nice to be here.
Matt sean it's usually just 2 bald men. We're
branching out. We're trying to bring in all
the bald men. So and rob is here because he
lended a hand in crafting the episode with
How it's 3
So he has another perspective to add to the
conversation and we're looking forward to
talking to him about this today's episode
we're going to be focusing on Matt's most
recent episode which was titled solar panels
plus farming question Mark agrovoltaics explained.
Always a question mark.
And this was from October Fifth Twenty Twenty
one and right off the bat I saw in the comments
there was a lot of very positive response
to this. This is an idea that really seems
to hit a ah, an intersection of needs.
In a very unique Way. So The public response
seems to be This is great. But as you point
out, there's a lot of pressure pushing back
the other direction from people who are concerned
about things changing in their environment
where they live. In ways that might impact
their lives and sadly governmental bureaucracy
which just hasn't caught up to being able
to bring this into communities in a way that
makes sense and I'm wondering from both of
you. Do you get a sense that those 2 things.
Are actually 1 thing is there public pressure
being put on politicians to keep things the
way they are or is there a lack of movement
by government that is allowing for concretized
thinking to stay in place.
Here's what you think rob.
Well it it I think it depends on where you
live where I live our governments especially
in the in the Eu are actually very open to
these kinds of Concepts but they struggle
to give this these concepts a proper place
and it has all. All to do with current regulations
and current ways of land use and and the way
that we even work with them you you might
have seen in in in the video that there is
some regulation that the Eu has. That actually
subsidizes land use for agriculture and if
if you put something else on that land that
subsidy that that might go away so it's a
thorny subject there at that at that point.
But I guess that in other places in the world
that it's an entirely different ball game.
Yeah I think here in the Us. It's mainly the
free market which seems to rule everything
here and there's a conservative bent that
doesn't I don't think there's a cabal that's
working against something like this I think
it's just a slow moving reality that we're
watching Unfold. And there's not a lot of
government support pushing it yet.
And do you think that it's a matter of public
education mainly like getting getting this
information out in in front of the public
to allow people to see what would this look
like like 1 of the things that you point out
is I love that there's a parallel between.
High-tech version of farming raspberries and
the low techch version. Both of them need
to protect the plants. 1 of them is just using
plastic Tarps the other 1 with solar panels.
It really doesn't change the product underneath
it really. It solves certain problems like
you mentioned. The workers have better shade.
The plants are better protected in case of
larger storms. That's a kind of image of what
this kind of farming could look like that
really isn't 1 that people would have if they
were just told. What would you think about
putting solar panels on a farm.
Right? Yeah I do think there's there's a public
education angle to this that needs to happen
I was just talking to rob before the call
of I just saw a story about in France they're
becoming more of a semi-arid climate region
and it's been impacting the. Ah, vineyards
and the grapes that they're growing and there
was this story I saw about the Aggravville
ticks over a vineyard and how his grapes were
you know, plump and healthy compared to the
non aggravoltaic crops in the area.
And so it's like this has a huge impact on
farming in different regions depending on
where you live and I think there's just ah
I don't think the public knows about it I
don't think a lot of maybe a lot of people
in government don't know about this so it's
like I do think that there's ah, an education
that has to happen more broadly so people
know that this is a thing that we should be
looking into more. And studying more closely
because Rob crack me if I'm wrong. This is
still early days as far as the studies. Yeah.
This is this is very early days just just
a few years on the road we are with this concept
and it it seems that for certain crops. This
is a fantastic solution and for other types
of crops. It's it's just not feasible. It's
it's. It's it's not a 1 size- fitts-all solution.
It's a solution that that can benefit certain
kinds of agriculture more than others. Great
for that. The the company hunlev which did
the did these projects and which we showcased
with the Raspberry farm. They also are doing.
Ah, projects with strawberries and other kinds
of berries especially fruits that are originally
coming from forest areas and shade loving
fruits. But. They need to have sun once in
a while and they don't tend to grow very high
and that makes it easy to to just make a canopy
of of solar um ah panels above them and and
it. It. It creates an interesting and a quite
stable environment for those plants. So in
that case, it's a interesting use case. But
for other for other types of crop it. It might
just not not be feasible to do it.
Yeah I was struck by the some of the imagery
in the video that was used was clearly you
you know you I know Matt you go and get stock
video from various sources to be able to fill
in imagery and it doesn't necessarily mean.
When you show an image this is a case where
this is going to take place or where it makes
sense necessarily some of the crops that you
showed things like corn. There are going to
be complications depending on the size of
the crop if something is if we're talking
about a farm that is let's say an orchard
that is growing apples.
Oranges that kind of crop. This isn't necessarily
going to be like well let's just put solar
panels above those trees. This is not going
to be that kind of thing.
Right? There's There's like Ron pointed Out.
There's certain crops where not just from
how much sun they need but also from the size
shape and how we cultivate those crops that
may not make sense but this is 1 of those
things we have to study this we have to do
this more and try it out and see what works
and what doesn't work and there's also I have
a video coming up. On transparent solar panels
that's coming up and that technology could
have a huge impact on this kind of thing as
well because as as we highlighted in this
video which was the the farmer they tried
different types of solar panels and discovered
this 1 panel blocks too much light. They had
to use a different 1 that let a little um.
Light through if you have transparent solar
panels. You could like fine tune how much
light is being allowed through and the in
the spectrum of light that's being allowed
through so I have a feeling like in the next
1020 years this is going to get refined to
a point where it's going to be kind of astounding.
And some of these transparent solar panels
are already being used on greenhouses. So
there's there's a path forward. That's really
Right? and I was wondering about that as well
is this heading toward more greenhouse agriculture
than what would be considered outdoor agriculture.
Um, yeah I don't know I mean there's so many
things like I've also talked about ah vertical
farming in a different video. It's like there
seems like there's a sweet spot of like you
have transparent solar panels that are providing
the power for vertical farming systems inside
of a building and all this kind of stuff so
there's. Different angles that could be taken
here in different combinations of things that
it's like Lego blocks like but we're at the
very early days of what all this means and
how we can use these different things together
in different ways.
The and the company Junlev ah they explained
to me when I visited their their farm in Babarrek
that they chose for just regular solar panels
because those are the cheapest ones to get.
And it's already a little bit more expensive
to create those constructions and they can't
put as many solar panels in in the same area
to to generate that amount of energy that
they could if they were just solely solar
panels but they just cramming together. 2
2 technologies to see what's what's possible
and of course we can optimize it but just
with current simple already proven Technology.
We can already do a lot of things and it it
can be sustainable and it it can be profitable
as Well. And that was a real surprise for
me to see that.
Yeah, and the the facility that we highlighted
in the video you rob actually visited and
the thing I find fascinating about that 1
is not only did they choose the panels that
were obviously the cheapest but they didn't
use motorized like movements and articulating
panels because that 1 that probably also increases
the cost makes it more complicated. And the
system they have is like the most rudimentary
where you could do this and test it and to
test the feasibility I thought it was really
fascinating. They didn't go that approach
because some of the other ones I've come across
like this 1 in France over the vineyards they
were using the motorized articulated panels
to adjust exactly how much sun was being allowed
through at different times of the day and.
While that works that increases the cost.
And you've mentioned that rob actually visited
1 of these locations so I want to kind of
take a step backward now and visit the technical
putting together of this video rob how did
you come into this project with Matt was this
something Matt that you had a project. You
were working on and rob kind of surfaced and
said hey I know a little bit about that or
I can be a contact How did the 2 of you start
working on this collaboratively.
Well, what's funny is I had aggravilleticcks
on my backlog of ideas to hit at some point
but Rob reached out to me and why why't you
tell the story rob.
Ah, and it's it's ah a series of coincidences.
Um, and I'm I'm fifty four years old and 5
years ago I decided to engage in a bachelor's
study on environmental sciences. And 1 of
the courses I did was on environmentally improved
production and as a course assignment I needed
to write an essay on something that is related
to environmentally improved production. So
I chose the subject of agrial takes because
i've. Thought it might be an interesting subject
to investigate so I did a lot of research
I wrote my essay and um I thought about that.
Ah that that that that's something that might
actually fit on the channel from from undecied
from that. So since I'm a patreon producer
from the the first hour already. Um I just
reached that hit how do you feel like let's
make a video together and well that that Matt
was open to it so I wrote a script. Um. It
was twice as large as the actual video it
it ah because I think there's a lot lot to
tell about this subject and it was very much
fun working with Matt to to to to get this
subject in in in.
Yeah, it was it was It was very long.
Twelve minutes and even ah get some fun humor
in it which which is not my forte but Matt
matt is very good at it and I think he just
created the meme just like me.
Yeah, yeah, ah.
Yes, I particularly enjoyed finding out that
cows hate solar panels That was my favorite
Ah, and that that that that's how it went
that that there was actually somebody who
who commented on it in in in the video and
he he thought we were serious so I was I responded
okay that was a joke.
Ah, yeah, yeah.
Yeah I may been a little too deadpan in my
delivery of that joke.
So that that's how it went.
So you went through a first draft and you
paired it down to fit into a twelve minute
video um and then you actually visit the site.
So do you want to talk a little bit about
where in europe you live and how what was
the ease of your being able to visit these
Well, um, you might have guessed that I'm
from the netherlands so small country in the
northwest of europe and well this this particular
farm is just a 1 hour drive from my home so
it was very easy to visit it and I reached
out to the farm. Because I was interested
for my essay in in having some taking some
pictures and getting to to to get some firsthand
experience there and they responded. Okay,
we get so many questions for visits but in
ah in a few weeks time we have a. A slot where
we invite a lot of people who are interested.
You can come on that date and then we will
give you a tour and that tour was was done
just by the farmer but also by the company
who owns the solar panels who installed the
solar panels and um. Was very easy for me
to get there. So I made some footage that
also appeared in the video those were the
the footage where hun lever was not credited.
That was my footage and just just a couple
of pictures and and some some short videos
on on both sides of the. Farm and so the the
plastic pot and the the solar part so it it
was actually quite um, accessible for me because
it's just 1 hour drive from where I live.
And I'm curious how long has the farm been
using this tech you you mentioned that you
started doing the the bachelor degree was
it 5 years ago you said right? So you had
to write this paper when.
Ah, yeah in 2017 I started it. It's it's all
in my well I wrote it just this summer and
this farm was starting with this project in
2019 so it was actually quite fresh on the
radar. To to put it that way. Yeah.
And I'm curious about the growing season there
here in the us in the news this past summer
the past few months there's been some things
that have been percolating in the news about
how various cities in the us are effectively
being reclassified as far as what. What zone
what environmental zone they live in like
I live in New York city we are now considered
subtropical. So that's ah, that's a pretty
big change and that's an impact that's hitting
farms across the country as as this video
talks about in particular and Matt and you
have talked about already in this recording
of. The impact in changes in weather patterns
in the netherlands. What kinds of changes
have you seen there are you seeing rising
temperatures or longer raining seasons is
there is there something that's going on there
that this kind of technology might help mitigate.
Yeah, absolutely. Um, we are in ah in a moderate
climate here. Um, we we are close to the atlantic
ocean and um. What we are facing here is that
we get more hot summers. Um, we get milder
winters but in those hot summers. We also
get um more extreme weather more extreme hail
more extreme rain. All this kinds of stuff.
So for instance, the the damage that this
farmer usually has during during summer storms
was it in in in in in the past decade was
negligible. Ah, ah once in a few years his
his ah his plastic canopies were destroyed
but now it happens almost every year um and
and and those storms and those hails they
intensify. um um I don't know if you've seen
it in the dews but we are now also getting
floods here and um. It it the point with with
global warming is that the air becomes warmer
and a warm air can rechain more um water than
cold air. So there' is more water in the air
and it gets released once in a while. In in
in in ways that we haven't seen for a long
time so that's really a benefit for this this
type of agriculture because they can have
a growing season in in in summer and and and
an entire. Ah, crop yield can be destroyed
just by 1 storm and that's something that
this this typical dissolution helps to prevent.
Yeah, the the other thing about it is I love
this symbiotic relationship. You get between
the crops and the panels because the panels
can reduce the temperature by 1 to 2 degrees
celsius which can help the crops as the climate
shifts and gets warmer and hotter and more
humid and then it also helps the panels because
the crops actually keep the panels cooler.
Which makes their operations more efficient.
So it's like this wonderful little symbiotic
relationship that happens between the 2
Yeah, the the farmer told me that beneath
the solar panels compared with the plastic
canopies and there was a temperatureative
difference of seven degrees Celsius So I don't
know what that's that's in fahrenheit but
that's actually a lot and that was not just.
Nice for the the workers who had to harvest
all those raspberries have to be harvested
manually because it's a very delicate fruit.
Um, but those plants they suffer um much more
heat stress and they have to use.
Way more water under the plastic canopies
and those plastic canopies they they need
to be there to give shade to protect them
from Hill and rain and those kinds of to protect
them from the elements. But also those those
plastic canopies they are translucent so they
let the light through. And they still get
the light and with the solar panels The same
thing happens but it's it's a more sturdier
canopy for them.
Yeah, that's really remarkable. The.
That's actually that I say that there's just
1 other aspect of this that always strikes
me the more videos I do have of and than this
the 1 issue I'm becoming more and more concerned
with over time is accessibility to clean,
fresh water and it's becoming. It's. Clear
that we are going to have a major water problem
in our future and so it's like being able
to reduce how much water it takes to maintain
our crops is essential and the crops that
grow under panels like this. They take less
water and that's ah, a key thing that we need
to focus on.
Yeah, and they are also a very good irrigation
drainage so solution because the waterfalls
between the rows and not on the plants. So
those those raspberries they are not grown
in the soil they are grown in pots. So.
Ah, the the soil beneath them. It. It is not
how do you?? How do you say that? um it it
it. It. It doesn't flow away when it rains
very hard and those those crops still can.
Work because they are actually not on the
ground themselves. They are just in pots.
Right? So it's controlling the water distribution
which is beneficial to the plants as well.
That's that's a nice. It's all of these things
that are accidental benefits. But once you
recognize that they're there and you can.
Take advantage of it. It seems like it all
starts to fit together beautifully and that
for me raises the question of who is the the
mastermind behind saying like what if we did.
This is this something that is a governmental
research project or is this a university was
this started by. Agriculture centers where
maybe they were looking from the side of the
farmer where did this all start.
Um, as far as I know this is a commercial
Enterprise So Hun Leif. Ah and the company
that we showcased. Is is a a company which
is already doing a lot on sustainable energy
a sustainable ah technology and energy production
and they found it interesting to see if this
will also work. In an agricultural setting
and they have engaged with the wining a University
Um, That's a well-renknown of a well-renowned
University on Agriculture and they they partnered
together with the wagoning a university To.
To have this studied scientifically as well.
But it's It's just a commercial enterprise
trying to to do this and see if they can make
profit on the long term. So that there there
was no government incentive here. It was not
sponsored by any University It was just normal
business.. There's this potential.
It's it's it's energy companies recognizing
renewables like wind and solar. There's a
potential here and they can make more money
and so it's it's 1 of those aspects where
this is where the free market comes in handy
because it's like it's that extra little incentive
like as soon as dollar signs are seen.
Um, right? and this goes back to something
you've brought up in other videos Matt that
there sometimes could be more positive pressure
to making this kind of change when it's not.
Companies will jump in that direction.
Coming from the environmentalist side of it.
The environmentalist there's a certain amount
of white noise that comes with that where
people tune it out because oh those tree huggers
but when it's an energy company and this and
this ties in with something else. You brought
up in your video.
Question of ownership of the electronic of
the electricity produced and of the panels
themselves because of the layers of subsidies
around the farms and if they have to be considered
a structure and that would then undermine
the subsidy farmers aren't going to won that.
Want that unless the law is changed So In
this case, it's the panels are owned by an
electric company and the electricity is owned
by them and they would be paying the farmers
for how would the farmers benefit from this
financially if at all.
You and take that rob.
Yeah in in this particular case it was very
easy because the farmer was able to sustain
his business as usual, um, with less troubles
in maintaining the structures he needs for
the the growth of of his product. Produce
um, so the farmer benefits from having these
structures um his his employees benefit from
it. They they like to work there more than
they like to work under the plastic canopies
because it can get very hot there. Um.
And um, that that was 1 of the the key points.
Ah if if if your your your produce is less
than than than before Why would you even bother
thinking about it. And and that's something
that the fra institute also investigated and
they said that okay farmers when they are
owning the solar panels. Um, they they can
have 2 kinds of products on the same land
and they can have energy and they can have
crops. And if for instance, the crop yield
is is not as good but they can compensate
with the energy yield and and vice versa.
But it's not 1 hundred percent plus 1 hundred
percent. So it it usually boils down to 1
80 or 1 eighty six percent of what. But could
be done instead of just using the land just
for crops or just for for solar um and what
I found in my study is also that not all farming
is. Economically viable anymore these days
And for instance, some farmers in the Uk.
They have been said they say okay we have
this land. It doesn't make sense to to grow
anything here. Let's put solar panels on it
and. Ah, okay, we also have some chicken and
some Geese let's let's let them move around
there and and then we have dual use of of
this land. But that's not what we call agrivoltaics.
It's it's just doing something extra with
it but they just turned from.
Agriculture to becoming an energy farmer and
that's something entirely different.
Um, and and there's also it's not just utilities
that are doing this like in the us 1 of the
largest aggravoltic tests centers was ah I
think it's called what is it called? Ah Jack's
solar garden it's in Boulder colorado.
Um, right right.
And it's a community solar project. So it's
not owned by a major lecture company. It's
a community community solar. So the farmer
themselves is actually benefiting from the
electricity generation in addition to the
benefits. They're getting from what they're
growing. So there's many ways that you can
handle these projects.
Yeah, the the frown of Institute also says
when these have these projects are are most
fruitful and successful if the energy which
is generated can can be used locally.
Which is the other interesting part.
And instead of just pushing you back to back
to the grid. So those synergistic effects.
Um, ah these are the things that um make it
interesting to to to explore these kinds of
Yes, and when it comes to energy production.
You want it to be especially fruitful on a
raspberry farm see what I did there? Yes,
this it's I think 1 of the the key things
that stands out for me is is this is.
Ah, see what you did there.
Something that could be done globally. This
is this is a practice and when you talk about
agrivoltaics it it occurred to me that the
key you you pointed out the rob the the uk
example of change of land use does not make
it agricultal voltaic. It's when it's. Enmeshed
with the actual agriculture process that seems
to me like this could be done in a lot of
different environments globally. But it's
going to have a lot of different types of
bureaucratic and governmental regulation to
jump through and it's not going to be an apples
to apples comparison from. somewhere in iowa
to somewhere in europe it's going to be each
of those cases is going to be very unique
and I'm wondering. Are there some crops that
stand out as raspberry the raspberry production.
Ah the the the Bush fruit um, that is. Referenced
in that like strawberries where you mentioned
things that would have grown naturally in
wooded areas would benefit from this is there
another crop that just stands out as like
this is clearly a crop that might benefit
from this like how would this. Interact with
maybe rice production is a rice patty something
where you could put these kinds of panels
around a rice padty and have a similar impact
or does there happen to be a crop that it
just oh this could never ever work. We already
mentioned things like tree orchards and stuff
That's that's a difficult question but I've
been thinking about that as well and there's
1 particular example which is very appealing
to me I don't know if you know anything about
cotton production cotton is extremely waterhungry.
And I don't know if you've ever seen pictures
of the lake aral somewhere in I think it was
somewhere on the on the asian continent I
think it was something between russia and
china something like that. And not sure exactly
where it where it is but that lake has been
drained off all water in just a few decades
just for cotton production and now it's it's
it's ah a mere shimmer of what it was before
if we were able to to do cotton production.
Ah, with fifty percent less water than that
entire ecosystem could recover from what it
has become so that was just 1 thing that I
thought might be interesting so I just don't
know enough about about those plans to.
To make that judgment. Um I'm I'm not a biologist.
So but that that was 1 thing that I thought
ah that might be actually quite interesting
and there was some someone in in the comments
on the on the video from Nigeria who said
I live in an area where water is a problem
we have. We have lots of land. We we need
to feed a lot of mouth and this would be an
ideal solution for our growing economy and
and they don't have existing grids that they
need to adapt to they can just build the grids
around these decentralized solutions and I
For those kinds of use cases and and and those
kinds of areas that would be an an amazing
opportunity. Yeah massive and I don't think
it's It's a solution for every ah region or
every crop I think I think that's that's nonsense.
Yeah, and I think the I think another benefit
from this is you're talking about as you mentioned
before these are crops that require hands
on they require there to be. Farm workers
that are going in and harvesting these things
because in some cases the delicacy of of the
the crop itself the the bushes that are growing
these and so it occurs to me that if you manage
to make a highly productive farm that would
create more jobs for people who would need
to be the workers going in and working with.
You know, harvesting those things. It seems
to me like that's another benefit that could
potentially come out of this a less productive
Farm doesn't need to hire as many farm hands
and somebody who's growing close to the maximum
yield that they can get out of something is
going to need more people So That's another
thing I think. Consider Well this conversation
has been Terrific. Rob Thank you so much for
joining us. Yeah.
Yeah, thank you Rob And thank you for all
the work on the video.
Ah, it. It was great. Fun to do it and I learned
a lot of it by doing it so and and there's
1 thing that I would like to add I've never
had the opportunity to actually. Present a
topic that I'm interested in or anthusiastic
about to um, a half a million people. So I'm
um, I'm um, I'm amazed by that so that that's
also something that I find here? amazing.
In this in this cooperation that we did so
it was a lot of fun and I learned a lot of
Yes, it was.
Um, what are the next steps for you Rob when
are you finishing up your degree.
I hope to finish it. Um, the end of next year
so I'm almost at the end of my of my tour
but it's all done in my spare time because
I'm just a I'm working in in. Um. And I t
consultancy for about 35 years so and it's
it's something. Yeah except it. Absolutely
absolutely. And yeah and I hope I can finish
it on on time It's always challenging.
So it's really a labor of love. It's a it's
a it's a passion project for you. That's fantastic.
Ah, yeah, yes, it does. But thank you again
for joining us. This has been fantastic. So
our listeners should let us know what they
think Oh absolutely our listeners should let
us know what they think and.
Yes, life gets in the way a lot of times.
You're welcome and and thank you Thank you
for having me.
Like rob pointed out people in different regions
have been reaching out and saying this would
make sense here I'm very curious are any of
our listeners in that group. Do you think
that there's a place where this could fit
into your local agricultural community. Let
us know you can find the contact information
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tries to convince the cows to stop hating
so hard on solar Thanks so much for listening
everybody. We'll talk to you next time.
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