With record-high temperatures in Northern Africa and food security worries from Egypt to Morocco, agrivoltaic projects in the region are getting more and more attention.
As food and energy security emerge as top priorities in several regions, an innovative use of existing technologies might help serve both: Agrivoltaic projects allow energy production and agricultural activity on the same land, potentially increasing farming productivity.
Several agrivoltaic programs, mainly with the participation of European research centers and agencies, are in their pilot phases on the African continent. One project in Algeria, named Watermed4.0, moves toward the final days of its research phase. Results are about to come in, says German research organization Fraunhofer ISE, one of altogether eight institutions involved.
“We only had the first harvest of potatoes so far. Early data had some promising results: under the agrivoltaic installation there was a significantly higher yield and size of the crop compared with an uncovered reference field — about 16% more,” said Brendon Bingwa, project manager Agrivoltaics Africa at Fraunhofer, told DW. He explained that some additional work would provide more data and evidence.
The German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) notes that exchanging experiences is essential for new processes like agrivoltaic programs. “It would be desirable if data and experiences on projects in this field were shared publicly for further assessment,” a spokesperson told DW.
Helpful change in microclimate
The shading effect and ensuing improvement of the microclimate in the areas below PV modules are among the main benefits of agrivoltaic projects, which could not only increase agricultural productivity, but also allow the cultivation of new crops.
These technologies will be increasingly crucial with climate change in mind, explains ENEA’s Photovoltaic and Smart Devices division manager, Ezio Terzini. ENEA is Italy’s public research agency, participating as a research partner in a proposed agrivoltaic project led by environmentalist organization Green Cross International. The idea is to build a 5 MW photovoltaic power plant in an agricultural region in Morocco.
“Many formerly fertile agricultural areas located in mild climate zones now suffer from progressive infertility due to rising temperatures or water scarcity,” Terzini told DW. “Other areas are exposed to extreme weather phenomena. Agrivoltaic projects could help with both, restoring fertile conditions to areas in progressive abandonment.”
Agrivoltaic projects can produce electricity to pump and desalinize water, opening the doors to agriculture in difficult regions, also in desert areas.
Terzini explains that the southern shores of the Mediterranean have long been boosting the spread of photovoltaics over large areas, exacerbating the trade-off between electricity and food production. While electricity is a medium-term necessity, food production is the short-term priority.
“The armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine is looming over a serious food crisis that will significantly affect Africa — we need to find solutions for increasing food production in this area,” Terzini emphasized.
This potential is significant. According to Fraunhofer’s project manager Bingwa, the agrivoltaic projects would not only ease local food security concerns. “The project in Algeria is an example: Strawberries are the second crop. Production would satisfy local markets and allow exports, thanks to cold storage facilities, which are not part of the ongoing project, but would be an added advantage if implemented.”
Looking forward, agrivoltaic projects could indeed use electricity to power cold-storage facilities to shield crops from high temperatures, prolonging the shelf-life of the harvested crops.
This additional service would be controlled by data-based control systems, which are currently being tested mostly to optimize water use.
“I hope that we will witness progress from this demonstrator phase to building them in communities in the next five years, with wider impacts on the region,” said Bingwa.
A stronger local economy would also have positive impacts on the job markets, eventually decreasing the probability of migration flows.
The Algerian experience shows that many institutions from different countries, including Algeria, Germany, Spain and Turkey, can bring together technologies and different know-how. Spain’s University of Murcia (UMU) for instance offers its expertise in digitalization in the Watermed4.0 project.
The next step is to find a suitable business model to make this experimental systems pay off. According to Bingwa, public funding is critical to research. Still, private investors and local players should then step in to make these projects viable and replicable.
Solar-powered irrigation systems
Agrivoltaic projects in the research phase in Africa combine several technologies, including solar-powered irrigation systems (SPIS). The German federally owned enterprise Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) have already worked on SPIS.
FAO underlines that these systems require reinforcing the technical capacities of local staff and farmers. “FAO and its partners developed the Toolbox on SPIS designed to enable advisers and service providers to provide broad hands-on guidance to end-users, policymakers, and financiers. Thus, risks related to system efficiency, financial viability and the unsustainable use of water resources can be minimized,” a FAO spokesperson told DW.
On the ground, FAO is currently working on three projects in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. The Rome-based organization stresses that projects in strategic regions could provide examples of good practice, allowing operations to be scaled up. That will also require the collaboration of local policymakers, which will need to create the framework for the investments.
“Strong institutions and clear policy vision help advance the adoption of such technologies,” the spokesperson concluded.
Edited by: Hardy Graupner