It’s been a big story about the massive price decreases in solar PV panels over the past half-decade. But now the industry is exploring ways to reduce other costs beyond the panels, with some promising innovation in the works.
Greentech Media profiled SunPower’s efforts on this front. The company is relying on drones to monitor installation progress and robots to clean the panels at night, reducing operations costs and improving efficiency. Of course, such innovations could diminish the jobs benefits for local communities going forward. But lower costs means cheaper electricity, which offers its own economic benefits economy-wide.
The SunPower R&D Ranch — where the company plans to test a suite of new technologies — is currently attempting to grow tomatoes and peppers in between the Oasis arrays, but it will attempt to grow other types of crops too. Heiner Lieth, professor at the UC Davis College of Agriculture and Environmental Science, started a solar research project in 2010 and has successfully been able to grow crops in the shade of solar panels. But there’s a lot more work to be done in order to scale these solutions, he said.
“I’m convinced it’s possible,” said Lieth. “The question is what the ideal balances are depending on what you’re going to be using for your cropping systems and what the market is for your electricity and agricultural products. And it opens up a whole world of questions.”
A lot still needs to be done to prove the concept, but together with grazing activities, on-site farming could help minimize the conflicts. It’s a subject we covered in the Berkeley Law/Conservation Biology Institute report “A Path Forward,” and it’s a problem that we hope more stakeholder engagement and innovations like these can solve.