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New energies 04/01/2021

Agriculture And Renewables, Opportunities For The Planet And For Farmers

Agriculture can have significant negative impacts on the environment, from CO2 emissions to soil degradation and water pollution.

An overview of how renewables are deployed in agriculture and how new paths are opening towards a greener sector.

As farmers face an uncertain future with disruptions and changes caused by climate change, innovative new solutions are needed more than ever to widen the opportunities to produce more green energy.

One promising solution is turning to renewable energy in agricultural production, not just for the benefit of the environment but also for the farmers themselves. 

Not only do renewables help reduce fossil fuels and thus greenhouse gas emissions, they also offer opportunities for farmers to diversify their incomes in the long-term, including the possibility to sell the excess electricity they produce by harvesting solar, wind or biomass energy.

In France for instance, agriculture accounts for 20% of the country’s national renewable energy production and generates nearly 1.4 billion euros, according to an ADEME report, which also predicts that agriculture could produce triple the amount of renewable energy by 2050.

But as farmers face an uncertain future with disruptions and changes caused by climate change, innovative new solutions are needed more than ever to widen the opportunities to produce more green energy.

Here is an overview of how renewables are deployed in the sector and how new paths are opening towards greener agriculture: 

Aiming high with wind, solar and biomass energy

The virtuous link between renewables and agriculture has already been proven through the harvest of traditional energy sources such as wind, solar and biomass. 

Denmark has the highest proportion of wind power in the world and its farmers put it to good use.

  • Danish startup Nordic Harvest has partnered with Taiwanese vertical farm tech company YesHealth Group to create a wind-powered vertical farm on the outskirts of Copenhagen, Denmark, which is set to produce nearly 1,000 metric tons of greens per year.
  • The 75,000 square feet farm runs fully on wind produced by the country’s extensive wind farms to power its hydroponic system and 20,000 LED lights, making it 100% carbon neutral. 

A study showed that putting solar panels on less than 1% of the world’s agricultural land could produce enough energy to meet global electricity demand. That proves the potential of “agrivoltaics” or “dual-use solar,” a method which consists in developing one area for both solar photovoltaic power and agriculture by elevating solar panels.

  • This allows crops to grow and animals to graze the land beneath. The panels provide energy for the farmers while still allowing them to exploit the land, and they also help block the wind and limit soil erosion.
  • Agrivoltaics is on the rise in the United States, where the Department of Energy will spend $7 million on projects to further develop this method. In Massachusetts, farmers who harvest cranberries, the state’s number one agricultural product, are increasingly turning towards agrivoltaics for extra revenue. 

Manure and other by-products generate lots of challenges for the sector but also offer great energy potential. That is why many large U.S. facilities have invested in anaerobic digestion (AD) technologies, which break down organic matter to generate biogas.

  • Smithfield Foods, one of the largest pork product makers in the world, has been putting money into large-scale AD systems since at least 2014.
  • Poultry processing company Perdue Farms has partnered with Bioenergy DevCo to build an anaerobic digester among other things.
  • “Recent estimates have shown that turning agricultural waste and excess organics from the poultry industry into truly renewable natural gas could replace 7 billion gallons of diesel fuel and generate 70,000 new jobs,” says Bioenergy DevCo CEO Shawn Kreloff. 

Harvesting resilience with offgrids solutions

In sub-Saharan Africa, decentralized renewable energy installations are key for farmers to build resilience to climate change, but the costs of such structures can be an obstacle for small-scale farmers. That is why some African startups are working on creating more accessible renewable solutions.

  • Kenya’s SunCulture sells an entirely solar-powered drip irrigation system as well as clean energy solutions tailored for smallholder farmers, with a “pay-as-you-go” financing model, which help the latter acquire these installations more easily. “It’s in our best interest as a business for our systems to be working so that our customers are earning the income to pay us back,” says Sunculture chief of staff Mikayla Czajkowski.
  • JUMEME in Tanzania is developing mini-grids in rural areas hand in hand with low-income communities and embedding them in local economies. With its pilot project KeyMaker Model, the company’s mini-grid helped support the local fishing industry by allowing fishermen to process and freeze their catch on-site using power they didn’t have access to before. The company has 12 such installations in operation in the Lake Victoria region and plans to finalize another 11 mini-hybrid solar arrays in northwest Tanzania.

Cleaner fertilizer with green ammonia

Ammonia (NH3) is a pungent gas largely used in agriculture to make fertilizers, but its production is the world’s third largest emitter of carbon dioxide with half a billion tons of CO₂ released every year. Now green ammonia is emerging, with a renewable and carbon-free process.

  • While ammonia is conventionally produced using natural gas as a fuel, its green pendant can be made via renewable energy sources such as wind, solar power or hydro-electric turbines, decarbonizing its production process.
  • The potential of green ammonia is vast, as not only can it be used as fertilizer, but it can also serve as a hydrogen carrier, to store energy or as a fuel.
  • In the United States, the University of Minnesota, with the Department of Energy, is overseeing a large network of green ammonia research projects. One combines green ammonia with distributed wind (turbines installed at or near the point of end-use such as factories or farms): deploying electricity from wind turbines to run an ammonia production system from water and air. Farmers could make their own fertilizer and fuel while generating renewable electricity for use on site.
  • Norwegian chemical company Yara has recently announced a “historic full-scale green ammonia project” with plans for 500,000 tons per year of green ammonia production, with shipping, agriculture and industrial applications.
  • “We see a clear opportunity to contribute to sustainable agriculture, while at the same building new business for both farmers and for Yara. As an example, we can directly address 70% of corn crop emissions with optimal crop nutrition and soil health measures,” says Terje Knutsen, EVP Farming Solutions.

ENGIE Expert Eye

Camel Makhloufi and Nouaamane Kezibri, research engineers at the Hydrogen Lab at ENGIE Lab CRIGEN, see potential in coupling renewable energy to the production of green ammonia: “There is great interest both in the scientific community and among the major industrial players working in the fertilizer, ‘heavy mobility’ and energy sectors. Renewable ammonia could be used to reduce the indirect emissions which are associated with the production of nitrogenous fertilizers, by replacing fossil raw material with a renewable electricity source. In addition, ammonia can contribute to cutting the direct emissions released by the agricultural activity, thanks to its use as an alternative fuel for agricultural machinery, for example.”


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