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Solar Panels and Biofuel-Producing Agave Plants Could Live Together

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scientistsmoBoosting the efficiency of renewable energy production does not necessarily need to involve high-tech, super new, breakthrough discoveries. On the contrary, it could actually be quite simple. Scientists from Stanford demonstrate this in a new study, where they describe a model, which shows that growing biofuel pants, such as agave, next to photovoltaic panels, is an extremely useful strategy for making use of abandoned land and at the same time produce two types of renewable energy.

Locations such as Southern California, where the sun is shining strongly throughout the day, are ideal for solar power plants. The incoming light generates enough energy to power up thousands of homes in a clean and very environmentally friendly way. What people rarely consider, however, is that in order to make use of the full capacity of photovoltaic panels, these should be maintained as clean as possible. Needless to say, to do that, quite a big amount of water has to be used, however in the most sunny locations the water is most scarce.

A team of scientists at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment took on the task to find a way in which this water, that otherwise goes to waste through runoff, could be reused in an effective way. Their study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, describes a neat way for large solar power infrastructures to coexist with and even boost biofuel production.

The team, led by Sujith Ravi, a postdoctoral researcher, developed a computer model to demonstrate an effective strategy with which unsuitable for agricultural production land could be used for both solar energy generation and biofuel crop cultivation. The model also shows that unique synergy between the two can be achieved, as the spaces between solar panels provide perfect conditions for agave plants to grow, irrigated by the water used to clean the panels.

The strategy has been tested and has proven very successful according to simulations performed on a  hypothetical co-location solar farm in Southern California’s San Bernardino County. The next step for the team is to apply the model for other locations and calculate whether the produced crop yield would be sufficient and cost-effective. The team is not yet 100% certain that it would work, but considering the benefits of such approach, it is most definitely something to explore further.

Image (c) Sujith Ravi

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