Solar Farm’s Dual Use

Solar farm is a large-scale photovoltaic system located in agricultural areas.  It is used to generate electricity at commercial terms for the power grid.  It is normally owned by independent power producers, but can also involve the participation of the local community.  The size of a solar farm can vary from one acre of land to around 75 football grounds put together.
Solar farm has numerous advantages over solar panels installed on the roofs of residential and commercial buildings.  Centralizing the location of solar systems on a farm allows optimum power output as compared to residential installations which are constrained by trees, roof size, adjacent buildings and immediate micro-climate.  Solar farm allows the panels to be mounted on big motorized towers, thus giving the possibility for the directions of the panels to be adjusted to track the movement of sun.  As all the solar panels are located in one single farm, it makes maintenance and monitoring easier.
Solar farm has dual purpose usage with animals grazing between the rows and fodder plants and flowers grown around the modules.  The Japanese farmers are known to be harvesting dual incomes by selling electricity from solar panels that hang above their farm and by growing taro, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, blueberries and leafy vegetables under the shelter of the panels.  While too much sunlight can harm crops, the solar panels help the soil to retain moisture and maximize growth of plants.
Solar energy has great potential in Mauritius, as year-long sunshine dominates the Mauritian climate.  One of the basic requirements for solar farm is to have vast expanse of flat lands.  Mauritius, being a tiny island, has severe land-constraint problem, to the extent that even marginal lands have commercial value.  For more than two centuries, the bulk of the agricultural lands have been extensively covered by sugar-cane plantations.  In the present economic context, marked by depression of sugar price and erosion of preferential access on the EU market, the sugar sector does not seem to give appetite to sugar growers, more particularly the small planters.  Several of them have left their sugarcane fields abandoned.  The land under sugar-cane cultivation has decreased by 30%, falling from 76,477 hectares in 2001 to 52,964 hectares in 2013.  This trend will continue and will further accentuate in 2017 when the sugar quota will be completely phased out.  This has raised serious concern among policy makers, sugar planters, rural community as well as environmental activists on what to do with these abandoned lands and how to reconvert them into economic use.  One of the solutions would be to encourage the planters to convert the idle sugar-cane fields into solar farms.
Mauritius is a net-energy importing and net-food importing country.  By converting a part of the idle sugarcane fields into solar farm, with the possibility of growing vegetables and rearing cattle under the shade of the solar panels, it can achieve the dual-objectives of reducing its import bills for fossil fuels and food and enhance its security for food and energy.  With the growing trend of urbanization, industrialization and digitalization, Mauritius will be under great pressure for electricity demand.  This will be coupled with increasing demand for food to feed both its growing population and tourists.  The dual usage of solar farms seems to be an interesting concept that offers the potential for achieving multiple objectives.
Although the solar farm is the generator of clean and green energy, some environmentalists in US and UK have not hesitated to raise some controversies against giant solar farms.  Some believe that solar farms constitute an eyesore to the countryside landscape.  Others protests that birds flying through the extremely hot “thermal flux” surrounding the towers, which can reach 1,000 degrees Farhenheit, can  scorch birds flying over them.
In its move to pursue with Solar Farm projects, Mauritius needs to learn from the best practices and proven experiences from elsewhere.  Evidently, Mauritius must not replicate the mega solar farms that have been accused to affecting wildlife in the US and attracting controversy over environment in the UK.  Given its specificity as a small island, Mauritius must opt for small/medium sized solar farms that go in harmony with the rural landscape and that opens the possibility for small planters to derive benefits.  The Japanese initiative in promoting solar farmers to harvest electricity with crops and “eco-milk” could be a valuable experience for Mauritius to acquire.  The Japanese model has already attracted the interest of Qatar, a tiny peninsula, which is very inclined to invest massively in solar farms with dual usage.