Tages-Anzeiger Monday 6 February 2023
The energy transition battlefield
Photovoltaics on Cultivated Land Farmers should help with the switch to renewable energies. Politicians, therefore, want to promote solar plants in fields. However, the Farmers’ Association fears that this would have a negative impact on food production.
by Stefan Häne
Food on the bottom, electricity on the top: farmer Barbara Schwab Züger wants to use her land in Walperswil, Bern, twice. On an area the size of a quarter of a football field, raspberries and strawberries are to grow under extra translucent solar panels. The panels serve as weather protection. Schwab’s farm can use the electricity it generates itself.
Experts refer to this as agrifotovoltaics, or agri-FV for short. “I am convinced that it is an opportunity for agriculture,” says Schwab Züger. For the trial, her farm is working with Agroscope, the federal agricultural research institute. Many questions need to be clarified: Which berry species are suitable? Do the crops yield the same under panels as without? Is the system profitable?
The trial should already be running on Schwab Züger’s farm. But due to delays in delivery, the test plant was not completed on time. But that does not change the hopes placed in photovoltaics on cultivated land: It is supposed to advance the energy transition. Due to the electrification of transport and heating, Switzerland will consume more electricity in the future; experts estimate 80 terawatt-hours per year, about 20 more than today.
The energy transition will be slowed down.
If about 10 percent of this is to come from agri-FV, the following areas are needed: 115 km2 of arable land or 280 km2 of grassland, or 96 km2 of so-called permanent crops, i.e., vineyards and orchards. These figures were calculated last year by a team from the Zurich University of Applied Sciences. To put this into perspective: one-third of Switzerland’s land area is used for agriculture, around 14,500 square kilometres.
Trials are also underway elsewhere, for example in Wädenswil ZH or near Siders VS. Insolight SA, a start-up at the EPF Lausanne, says it has developed an intelligent plant protection system: It produces electricity only with the light that the plants do not need.
However, in Switzerland Agri-FV is currently only permitted under strict conditions. Last summer, the Federal Council lifted the previous de facto ban, but at the same time put brakes on it. For example, solar plants must bring “advantages” for agricultural production, i.e. increase yields. In addition, farmers no longer receive direct payments for the land on which they install the systems.
The solar industry is sobered by the Federal Council’s regulations. This means that agrifotovoltaics is practically only an option for special crops such as berries because these can also thrive in the shade of panels. Moreover, for fruit farmers, who generate comparatively much-added value with their products, direct payments are of somewhat less importance than for other farmers.
Now, however, there are signs of a relaxation of the regime. The Federal Council now also wants to pay direct payments for cultivated land with agri-FV facilities. Farmers should thus be given more incentive to invest in agri-farming. The proposal is part of the 2023 package of agricultural ordinances that the Federal Council sent out for consultation the week before last.
There is also an impulse from parliament: in the future, solar panels are to be permitted even if agricultural interests are “slightly” impaired as a result, in plain language: if harvests decline slightly. This is what the National Council’s Environmental Commission (Urek) is proposing. The same commission is already pushing ahead with the controversial Lex Windkraft.
Buildings have potential
The Swiss Farmers’ Union reacts negatively to the Urek proposal. President Markus Ritter fears that food production “will be pushed into the background” if farmers can make a lucrative business out of producing solar power. Today, Switzerland imports half of its food. The issue of supply security has moved up the political agenda in the wake of the Corona pandemic and the Ukraine war. For Ritter, it is “undisputed” that new solar plants are also needed for the energy transition. “But not at the expense of cultivated land and food security. The first thing to do is to use the enormous potential on roofs, says the Centre National Councillor. By way of comparison, the federal government estimates the exploitable solar power potential on Swiss buildings at around 67 terawatt-hours per year.
For the Small Farmers Association, too, agricultural production should continue to have priority. President and Green National Councillor Kilian Baumann, like Ritter, point to the untapped potential of buildings. In his view, farmers should only be able to set up Agri-FV systems in the future if they have already installed panels on their farm buildings. Direct payments should flow as proposed by the Federal Council but should be linked to stricter ecological requirements.
Baumann is also prepared to allow a certain amount of competition from Agri-FV in food production; he speaks of a maximum yield reduction of 20 percent. For the country’s food security, he says, other factors are crucial, such as a reduction in livestock numbers and an orientation towards an increasingly plant-based diet.
The mood in the solar industry is quite different from that of the farmers’ association. The relaxation proposed by the National Council’s Environmental Commission is a step in the right direction for the Swissolar association. “Agri-FV will now also be possible in combination with other crops and will not be limited to berry and fruit plantations, as is the case today,” says Managing Director David Stickelberger.
As controversial as the Environmental Commission’s plan is, less stringent requirements are likely to increase interest in Agri-FV in farming circles. But it is unclear what the consequences will be. One pressing question is the extent to which electricity production in the fields would fuel speculation with farmers’ land. There are more and more voices in parliament demanding that the Federal Council clarify this issue.
Implementation is difficult
The answer to this question will play a key role in determining whether Agri-FV will gain momentum in Switzerland. The solar industry is therefore following political developments closely. Rainer Isenrich, a member of the board of directors at Insolight, says: “Agri-FV systems should be a tool for farmers – and not an additional source of income that can trigger speculation with the land.” Isenrich also tries to allay the outlined fears of the farmers’ association: FV plants can be quickly dismantled if necessary, for example in a supply emergency. “Therefore, they do not pose a fundamental threat to food security.”
Whatever solution will prevail in the end: The fundamental difficulty remains as to how the policy guidelines can be implemented in practice. For example, when it comes to lower or higher yields that decide whether a plant is approved. What is the basis for this? How do you deal with the fact that yields fluctuate due to weather conditions? Swissolar is now seeking talks with various federal offices, as Managing Director Stickelberger says. “We want to address the difficulties in implementing the current ordinance.”
More clarity would also be in the interests of farmer Schwab Züger. She considers a reduction in harvests to be tolerable as long as it is only minor. “Agri-FV may bring other advantages.” What does she mean by that? Depending on the crop, for example, less water or fewer pesticides would be needed – which would be in line with the federal government’s agricultural policy. For Schwab Züger, focusing solely on harvest yields in tonnes is not enough. “We need to take a holistic view.