Agri-PV: “Agricultural production must remain the principal activity"

Expert Interview – February 9, 2024

Dual land use of PV and agriculture is a concept that, in view of a lack of surface areas in Europe, has been gaining traction. Agrivoltaics is a complex practice because it concerns the relationship between farmers, landowners and investors.

At the Agrivoltaics Industry Forum in November 2023 in Strasbourg, we caught up with Darrell Leroux, Energy Climate Advisor at the National Farming Federation of France (Fédération Nationale des Syndicats d'Exploitants Agricoles – FNSEA) to talk about how Agrivoltaic projects can succeed without diminishing agricultural production.

How has the attitude of farmers towards Agrivoltaics developed over the last few years?

A couple of years ago, Agrivoltaics was still a sort of taboo among farmers in France. When we first started talking about it, farmers thought it was all about replacing field crops with solar panels. There were no regulations. And some projects were labeled as Agrivoltaics but actually involved barely any agricultural production, the so called alibi projects. We have managed to change this perception by raising awareness and providing information. Firstly, only a small percentage of agricultural land is suitable for Agrivoltaic projects.

In France, 0.2% of farmland could be used for Agrivoltaics by 2030, and less than 0.5% by 2050. So, it’s not the submergence of agriculture that has sometimes been fantasized about. Now we also have a law that defines what Agrivoltaics is. There is a clear distinction between ground-mounted PV without agricultural production, and Agrivoltaics. More and more people are showing an interest in these kinds of projects.

You mentioned alibi projects. What does that mean?

Those were projects where investors promised farmers a high revenue without guaranteeing the continuation of agricultural production. They presented their projects to local authorities as virtous projects, explaining that they would produce both energy and agricultural products. Years later, we realized that what was actually happening was that farmers completely abandoned agricultural production because they had no incentive to continue farming.

Farming is hard work, and people took the opportunity that presented itself. Now we have a regulation and control mechanisms to prevent this from happening again.

What are the key elements of a regulation to protect farmland from the risk of misuse?

The first key element that we proposed for a national law was a definition of Agrivoltaics as the production of energy with solar panels in combination with agricultural production underneath the panels. The solar panels must be agriculturally useful. They have four principal functions: First, the wellbeing of animals, if it's a livestock farm. Second, boosting the productivity of the soil. Third, protecting against unpredictable weather events like hail. And fourth, helping adaptation to climate change by preventing the soil from drying out.

Above all, the agricultural production must remain significant, it must remain the principal activity on the farm, but also on the parcel concerned. The decree we are awaiting will set an obligation for agricultural production under the panels. We also need financial guarantees for the land restoration at the end of projects. And we need firm controls and verification by the administration and strict sanctions in case of malpractice.

How can Agrivoltaics become the preferred option for land use? Farmers are still hesitant.

Farmers are interested in two things: First, the direct impact of the panels on agricultural production. Solar panels can make production more resilient. In the south of France for example, we have a lot of vineyards and arboriculture. Trackers panels can protect these crops from the risks associated with excessive heat.

The second factor is the revenue. Electricity production provides a significant additional income, complementing farm income, and Agrivoltaic projects can make farms more resilient and help them adapt to climate change. Plus, it is a new lever for value creation in territories.

Is there growing competition for land lease between farmers and investors?

In France, investors are bound by regulations. Replacing agricultural use by photovoltaics is not allowed anymore. But there is a demographic issue, there is a lack of young farmers. We are trying to attract more young farmers to ensure the generational renewal. But the high price of land makes this difficult and Agrivoltaics investors can drive up land prices even further. So yes, there might be a risk of competition that needs to be managed and mitigated.

How can we support farmers’ involvement in Agrivoltaics on leased land, so that not only landowners and investors benefit from solar production on arable land?

There is the classic model, where the energy producer pays rent to the landowner. This means that earnings are split between the landowner and the farmer. In France, two-thirds of the land is farmed by tenant farmers and not by the landowners themselves. That means that three parties get a share of the earnings. We want to encourage that. It’s normal that this increases the value of a farm. That’s a good thing.

Our worry is that there won’t be all that many projects, maybe 5.000 projects across 400,000 farms in the whole of France over the next ten years. We want the value generated by those projects to be shared in order to avoid competition or speculation. The first step is to have a fair sharing between the three parties, based on the contract. Beyond that, one option is to share the earnings at the level of the departement.

Cooperatives could be suitable vehicles for organizing this. A cooperative could provide a collective structure for energy producers and investors to benefit from the projects. But there are other forms too, such as financing a fund to develop projects. Second option, farmers do not just provide land, they are actively involved in the project. They might have a participation in the profits. They need to invest, and their income comes from the fixed rent and from the variable energy production.

It’s like signing a contract for the same amount of revenue each year, plus additional revenue – depending on the project’s profitability - if the farmer is part of the project. Farmers are also directly involved in managing projects. This will generate trust amongst farmers that Agrivoltaics can be a source of diversification and a new activity on farms.

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