Farmers will always need the sun to grow crops, but how they harness it continues to evolve. A small but growing number of farms have turned to agrivoltaics, which involves incorporating solar panels into farmland without sacrificing the land’s arability.
Using agrivoltaics, landowners can cultivate crops and generate clean energy at the same time beneath photovoltaic displays. According to the National Resources Defense Council, the process can have both agricultural and environmental benefits.
A recent report from Allied Market Research put the global agrivoltaics market at $3.6 billion in 2021 — a tiny slice of the overall market. However, that figure is expected to almost triple to $9.3 billion by 2031. More than one-third of the current market is concentrated in North America.
Among the companies angling for a piece of the market is Sunzaun, which makes vertical solar systems for farms and agricultural settings. Using the firm’s technology, crops grow, and animals graze under or around solar panels. The aim is to use land more efficiently, increase the use of clean energy, and even improve crop yields. And because the panels provide shade, the system should also save water.
Sunzaun, headquartered in Novato, CA, was officially launched by solar installation company Sunstall in February 2023.
But the company’s system — originally engineered by a German business — had already been in use prior to that through an installation on the Somerset Gourmet Farm vineyard in Somerset, CA.
Agrisolar Clearinghouse published a case study of the installation, which was completed in 2022. The system includes 43 450-watt modules connected to a microinverter and two batteries and sits on a hillside between rows of grapevines. Only one row of vines needed to be removed to make room for the system, and harvesting equipment could still work in the field directly next to the Sunzaun.
The Agrisolar case study noted that “while it is too early to say for certain what additional benefits the Sunzaun may provide beyond on-site power generation, the benefit of preserving grapevines alone is a significant win for the winery.”
That benefit addresses one of the biggest barriers to agrivoltaic installations in the U.S.: ensuring that the systems don’t interfere with crop production.
Traditional installations use a “racking” system to secure solar modules, which are then tilted to the appropriate angle on a horizontal axis. These tilted systems require a larger amount of land compared to vertical systems.
In contrast, the Sunzaun system uses bifacial modules in a vertical “portrait orientation,” with no racking system involved. This design represents a more minimalistic approach in which both sides of the solar panel can produce energy. The panels’ direction also allows adjustments to be made more quickly during the later stages of a project.
In addition to its agricultural functions, the Sunzaun system can be installed along highways and next to railways. It can also be set up as a fence for residential buildings and public spaces and in any environment that can benefit from the small spatial footprint of the vertical design.
“With our dual-use approach, Sunzaun will have a high impact on decarbonizing the U.S.,” said Helge Biernath, Sunstall CEO, in a press release. “It mitigates the problems for modern farming caused by climate change and offers energy supply for electric vehicles right where it’s needed. We are confident that Sunzaun will help our customers save money on their energy bills while also reducing their carbon footprint.”