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USDA Funds 'Agrivoltaics' Project Led by iSEE, Illinois Researchers
Iowa Ag Connection - 10/22/2021

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced funding for a new project led by iSEE Interim Director Madhu Khanna to optimize design for "agrivoltaic" systems -- fields with both crops and solar panels -- that will maintain crop production, produce renewable energy, and increase farm profitability.

This $10 million, four-year project, funded through the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Sustainable Agriculture Systems program with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign as the lead institution, will study agrivoltaics in a variety of land types and climate scenarios (Illinois, Colorado, Arizona).

"For centuries, humans have used the benefits of the sun to produce food and energy -- and only in recent decades has humanity turned to harvesting solar for renewable energy," said Khanna, the ACES Distinguished Professor of Agricultural & Consumer Economics at Illinois. "But to produce solar energy at the utility scale is land intensive, and cropland is often the most suitable for this purpose."

While solar has become more profitable for land use, concerns have arisen that it could cut into food production. And some counties have now prohibited large-scale photovoltaic arrays from replacing agricultural land.

"Agrivoltaics -- co-locating energy and food production -- has the potential to reduce this competition for land," Khanna said. "Our proposed project for Sustainably Colocating Agricultural and Photovoltaic Electricity Systems (SCAPES) will provide a comprehensive analysis of the transformative potential of agrivoltaics. Our goal is to maintain or even increase crop yield, increase the combined (food and electricity) productivity of land, and diversify and increase farmers' profits with row crops, forage, and specialty crops across a range of environments."

Illinois agrivoltaics investigators include Khanna; Carl Bernacchi, USDA Agricultural Research Service Plant Physiologist; Bruce Branham, Professor of Crop Sciences; Evan H. DeLucia, Arends Professor Emeritus of Plant Biology; D.K. Lee, Professor of Crop Sciences; Kaiyu Guan, Associate Professor of Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences; H. Chad Lane, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology and Computer Science; Nenad Miljkovic, Associate Professor of Mechanical Science & Engineering; Samantha Lindgren, Assistant Professor of Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership; Nuria Gomez-Casanovas, Visiting Research Specialist at iSEE; and Bin Peng, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

The Illinois team will partner with Dennis Bowman at the U of I Extension for agrivoltaics outreach activities. Additionally, the grant features a combination of research, education, and extension subawards for the University of Arizona, Colorado State University, Auburn University, the University of Illinois Chicago, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Also funded by USDA NIFA:

iSEE and the Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative helped U of I researchers become part of a $10 million project that seeks to make Midwestern agriculture more resilient by diversifying farms, marketing, and the agricultural landscape.

NIFA selected the Purdue University-led project titled "#DiverseCornBelt: Resilient Intensification through Diversity in Midwestern Agriculture," which has a multidisciplinary team that spans the life, physical and social sciences.

Assistant Professor Andrew Margenot and Professor Emily Heaton, both in the Department of Crop Sciences, will use their $1.7 million subaward to supervise students conducting biophysical measurements of cropping system function over a range of diverse crop practices. "We are excited to be working on this high-impact, regional project that is directly aligned with ISEE and IRAI," Heaton said. "This project will let us identify ways to diversify the corn belt ecosystem that also increase rural prosperity."

Other partner institutions on the project include the American Society of Agronomy, Conservation Technology Information Center, USDA Economic Research Service, USDA Forest Service, Illinois State University, Iowa State University, Montana State University, The Nature Conservancy, Practical Farmers of Iowa, University of Iowa, University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin Madison, and UW Platteville.

"The Midwest has unmatched biophysical potential when it comes to agriculture: inherently fertile soils, ample rainfall and growing season," Margenot said. "These natural resources can be used in multiple ways to meet rural communities' and larger U.S. society's needs: What are the trade-offs among these, from agronomic to environmental to socioeconomic outcomes? What are barriers and opportunities? In this work, a team of researchers across multiple Midwestern states will tackle these interdisciplinary questions. At the University of Illinois, we're proud to spearhead the biophysical evaluation of agroecosystem sustainability."


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