Spain: Can crops and solar panels coexist?
Is photovoltaics a threat to agriculture and food sovereignity? Renewable energy plants need large areas and grid access points for their deployment. This means that many are being installed on farmland, leading to the replacement of crops with solar panels and to unsustainable rises in leasing for farmers.
Wind and solar farm developers are making offers to farmers for their land that cannot compete with the current agricultural income. Spain is in the midst of a debate about the fit between agriculture and renewable energies.
The focus of the debate is between food production and electricity generation. Both activities compete for land use, especially solar panels, which require large areas of flat, gently sloping land, as do crops. Besides that, poor harvests due to the effects of climate change and the low prices farmers receive should be taken into consideration. The high prices paid by renewable project developers are a great temptation.
On the other side is the National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan that Spain has in place to meet its international commitments. Following the avalanche of projects, so far, the Ministry for Energy Transition has decided to give the go-ahead to 152 renewable macro-projects.
Behind these projects 36 large companies and investment funds are. Authorized solar projects, which compete with agriculture for land, cover an area of around 43,000 hectares, equivalent to 0.08% of Spain's land area. By way of comparison, for example, there are currently some 65,000 hectares of greenhouse crops in the whole country.
Food as strategic as water or energy
A landowner who rents his land to a farmer receives an annual income of about 300 euros per hectare of rainfed cereal crops. On the other hand, for a 30-year lease, renewable project developers pay around 1,800 euros per hectare per year, and if the land is of special interest, the figure can exceed 2,000 euros.
For months now, several organizations have been warning that the loss of agricultural land is not only a problem for farmers, but is "a strategic issue for the country, critical for food security, a matter of food sovereignty". For Manel Simón, manager of Afrucat (Cataluña Fruit Association), "food producers and investors in renewable energies have to come to an agreement and abide by clear rules. Food is as strategic for a country as water or energy".
Other economic actors are of the same opinion, "making the energy transition on the ground does not mean giving up food production", "energy and agricultural production can and should go hand in hand". Beyond the clash between agriculture and renewables, J.M. Martín, from the Renewables Foundation, stresses that "the main reason for rejecting renewable projects is merely a visual, landscape issue".
Not in my back yard!
Since the national Government decided to remove the mandatory environmental impact assessment for renewable energy projects due to the administrative bottleneck, the principle of “not in my back yard (NIMBY)” seems to have taken hold in small municipalities. Inhabitants of mountainous areas with a promising tourist future are openly speaking out against "a landscape full of windmills". "The ecological transition cannot be a safe-conduct for abuses against nature" neighborhood associations cry in the province of Teruel (Aragón), where the largest wind project, with a total of 118 wind turbines, is to be developed.
Besides that, civil and environmental platforms are arguing that these projects, far from creating wealth in their villages to fight depopulation, "what they do is expel the few remaining inhabitants" as they "harm the few alternatives that we have left, livestock farming and tourism". "Energy generates development where it is consumed and not where it is produced”.
For the economist José R. Rallo, what is being asked is that "wind power plants continue to be installed, but far from my home, that the destroyed landscapes be those of others, a typical NIMBY reaction". For Mr. Rallo, "societies without abundant and cheap sources of energy are societies condemned to poverty and stagnation". "We cannot reject absolutely every source of energy because any of them generates undesirable effects on third parties".
Irrigated land protected by law
The Ministry of Agriculture is finalizing a regulation for the protection of land use in irrigated areas, which cover some 3.8 million hectares. According to the text to be approved, renewable energy generation plants may not be authorized in irrigated areas: (1) which have been developed through the conversion from rainfed to irrigated land or through the modernization of irrigation thanks to public investments and (2) where public investments are foreseen.
Renewable energy plants linked to the operation and functioning of irrigation installations shall be exempted from the prohibition.
According to ministry sources, this new legislation has been forced by the increasing demand for the installation of renewable energy plants, as well as other industrial uses, on farmland, especially in irrigated areas which received public funds. The installation of these energy farms must be avoided as this could have negative influences such as loss of land productive potential, which would contribute to the depopulation of rural areas.
Is agrovoltaics the solution?
Agrivoltaics is the practice of using the same area of land for both solar photovoltaic power as well as for agriculture, which implies that solar panels and crops will share sunlight. Companies such as Endesa, in addition to reinforcing biodiversity in their facilities, are already testing the viability of combining agriculture and livestock with energy in the face of the conflict that has arisen from sharing spaces.
Endesa is growing aromatic and medicinal plants, grasses, leguminous plants and horticultural products. They also use animals for land clearing. Another example is Iberdrola, which has pilot projects with vineyard plantations, sheep grazing and the installation of beehives.