Rohini Kamal outlines the promises and problems for Bangladesh in building solar arrays on its farmland.

More than 100 countries met in Dubai during November last year where they pledged to move away from fossil fuels, triple renewable power and double energy efficiency by 2030. To realise that landmark renewable agreement at the United Nations’ 28th Conference of Parties (COP 28) some 7,800 GW will need to be added to global renewable power generation capacity within the next decade, with solar power accounting for most of the additional capacity.

The success of the COP 28 agreement relies heavily on Asia.

This pledge creates a particularly demanding challenge for Asia which is projected to make up half the world’s electricity consumption by 2025 and is still relying heavily on fossil fuel including coal, with some countries increasing their percentage of power produced by coal-fired plants. Yet, the success of the COP 28 agreement relies heavily on Asia.

Among South Asian countries, Bangladesh has the lowest percentage of its power generation capacity in renewable sources. In fact, it is behind its own stated renewable energy targets, with its current capacity standing at 4% relative to the 2020 government target of 10%, making it unlikely to reach the 2050 target of 100%. Currently, oil, gas, and coal make up more than 80% of the power generation mix in Bangladesh.

Solar photovoltaic technology is the most feasible option for Bangladesh in the transition to a low-carbon energy system. However, solar photovoltaic farms require significantly more land per unit of power relative to fossil fuel options. And a land policy drafted by the government of Bangladesh in 2016 discourages the use of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes like industry or infrastructure development.

Furthermore, Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and agriculture is its largest employment sector with over 40% of the country’s workforce. This imposes immense pressure on agricultural land. And while agriculture’s share of the nation’s economy has been declining over the years, more than 46% of all households in Bangladesh derive some income from agriculture. Moreover, gains in agriculture accounted for 90% of the reduction in poverty between 2005 and 2010.

In the longer term, Bangladesh could benefit by developing abilities to assemble and produce solar panels.

But the predominance of agriculture presents Bangladesh with a potential solution to its photovoltaic quandary: it could build solar arrays on the same land where crops are cultivated. This practice  — commonly referred to as agrisolar, agriphotovoltaics, or agrivoltaics –  could enable farmers to reap the benefits of the sun’s energy twice and could be a promising solution for Bangladesh’s land scarcity and agriculture production in the short and medium term. A recent macroeconomic exercise (see box: Agrovoltaics makes light work) shows how employment impacts from agrivoltaics could benefit women, low- and medium- skilled workers, and low-income households. These are promising findings but there needs to be proof of concept for Bangladesh.

Agrivoltaics makes light work
An ongoing study by Brac University’s BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, is looking at the implications of different power sources on land and employment. The study is assessing the comparative impacts of agrivoltaics with other energy options available in Bangladesh, including coal, gas, oil, hydropower, nuclear, and conventional solar power, considering direct and broader economy-wide effects. It looks at the upstream impacts on land and employment using interindustry linkages from the input output table.

Furthermore, the study looks beyond the total yearly wage and total jobs created, and includes skill level and gender disaggregation of yearly jobs generated under the different sources of power generation to capture distributional impacts.

The study has found that, in terms of total direct jobs, fossil fuel fares better than solar in Bangladesh. Coal and gas plants in the country involve land works and more construction. As most input parts for all power generation are imported, this lack of construction and earthworks means solar employs less direct employment. But this can be addressed through agrivoltaics, as agriculture remains one of the most labour-intensive sectors.

When disaggregating the skill level of employment generated, the study has found that the job input from agrivoltaics is expected to boost the number of low-skilled and medium-skilled labourers significantly. The number of high-skilled labourers for agrivoltaics, however, will likely remain similar to other sources of power for the same unit of power generated.

Agrivoltaics has, however, been found to yield the smallest gender employment gap compared to other energy sources. Employment in power generation tends to be male dominated in Bangladesh bit agrivoltaics could reduce this gender gap, as agriculture is one of the highest employment sources for women. And these values are for the formal sector only; there is more scope for growth in informal employment in agriculture, which, in Bangladesh, particularly benefits women. Therefore, the actual gains for women, and the gender gap, are potentially even higher under agrivoltaics than found in the study.

In the longer term, Bangladesh could benefit by developing abilities to assemble and produce solar panels and their components in the country to take advantage of potential upstream employment gains. The country could address rising import costs and the debt implications by extending its ongoing move into electronics to solar panels, following India’s current, and China’s previous policies encouraging domestic solar panel manufacturing.

The key takeaway from a review of the literature is that the impact on crop yield is chiefly dependent on crop choices, climatic conditions, and panel density.

Global evidence on agrivoltaics shows that it can bring energy cost-savings and additional income for local farmers (see box: In light of evidence). However, there could be a wide variation in its impact on crop yields depending on factors such as crop type, soil type, elevation, humidity and cloud cover of the area. Studies indicate that yields in rice and wheat fall, while shade tolerant crops perform well. In addition, the irrigation requirement can decrease but so can solar output per unit area. Meanwhile, the cultivation of a crop under an agrivoltaic system should be supported by demand for that crop in the national or international market.

In light of evidence
Studies on agrivoltaics from countries around the world indicate that solar energy generated from agricultural production under the panels can increase more than 30% in the economic value of the land and increase the overall land productivity from less than 45%  to 70%. Moreover, growing shade-tolerant crops has been reported to reduce the yield loss. Dual use of agricultural land was also found to have a positive effect on photovoltaic production in the US.

Vegetables that grow under partial shade such as tomato, cotton, potato, tea, coffee, garlic, onion, and turmeric are best suited for cultivation under agrivoltaic systems. The added shade can further reduce irrigation requirements by curbing evaporation. Moreover, the production of vegetable crops under a panel can reduce soil erosion and the amount of dust on the solar panel.

And dual-use of land with solar can be customised according to a farmer’s needs. For example, dairy farms and poultry farms can operate simultaneously near the installed solar plants. The waste from the farms can be reused for organic fertilieer production resulting in organic safe and contamination-free foods.

The key takeaway from a review of the literature is that the impact on crop yield is chiefly dependent on crop choices, climatic conditions, and panel density. Hence, further context-specific research and pilots are required to build understanding in the incentives and technical support needed for the appropriate crops to grow under panels.

The most crucial aspect of navigating the dual use of land is the land sharing agreement between the solar producer and farmer. If agriculture land becomes available for solar power generation in Bangladesh, there is risk of forceful land acquisition for huge swathes of the country (see box Plough versus panels). If local farmers and livelihood access for local households are not considered properly at the onset, local farmers risk losing out due to asymmetric information and disadvantageous land deals.

Ploughs versus panels
Solar farms and the solar energy industry can also fall into disrepute in cases where lack of regulation leads to expropriation or appropriation of resources and land. In Schoharie county, New York, state and local officials along with residents have been protesting against the use of land for solar plants. They allege that powerful actors are pressuring farmers to agree to disadvantageous contracts. 

In Coldiretti, Italy there have been allegations that six projects under the Recovery Plan have misused environmental codes to divert resources intended for farmers and breeders. 

In India, Adani Group’s development of new solar-power installations has provoked farmer protests in Rajasthan. Villagers allege that Adani Green Energy  thought I should give the company it’s full nameforcibly occupied farmlands to implement the 1,500 MW Fatehgarh Ultra Mega Solar Park.  Such cases highlight the complications around local access to land and natural resources when large corporations are involved, even for environmental projects.

A local newspaper in Bangladesh recently reported protests against a solar project by local affected communities in the Talatali area of Borguna’s Barabogi union. The protest was around land acquisition for a 200MW solar power project by the North-West Power Generation Company.

Local influential individuals were accused of pressuring landowners to sell their land for the project. Various local leaders and the general public expressed concerns about the project’s impacts on agriculture and livelihood as it involved 245 ha of land in which 55% was fertile agricultural land for three-crops harvested annually.

The villages involved were directly dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. The proposed project would lead to job losses for thousands of farmers who were unable to switch to other sectors. The villagers feared that if the project went ahead it would cause irreparable damage for them, leading them to urge the government to intervene and prevent the acquisition of land for this project. Local residents pointed out the project was attempting to gain land unlawfully and jeopardising the agricultural activities and economic wellbeing of the community.

Current power projects involve land acquisition with well-established guidelines for compensation. Agrivoltaics could involve land requisition instead of outright acquisition but in any instance clear guidelines will be needed to make the exact potential impact on farmers and solar providers clear.

There is a growing practice of land sharing agreements between farmers and agricultural companies, but to achieve the employment benefits identified in the macroeconomic study, the farmers employed must include local farmers and inhabitants. This implies a need for a larger number of players and more coordination between different institutions. However, the specifics of land-sharing agreements and institutional coordination become more complex and tied to location.

Current land sharing practices include instances where the agrobusiness involved ensured that local communities received fair terms and were given employment opportunities to the benefit of local farmers. Bad instances involved lack of clarity on the long-term impact on soil health and agricultural yield for farmers, or lack of job opportunities for local inhabitants.

One factor in this case might be the vulnerability of solar panels in farmers’ fields. While this might encourage solar producers to give better deals to farmers, it might also create more anxiety around going into land-sharing deals unless coordination and clarity between all parties are proactively pursued through appropriate policies and proper implementation.  The scarcity of land in Bangladesh suggests land-sharing is the only practical solution so these tensions will have to be solved.

Agrivoltaics brings together unlikely bedfellows whose motivations, while aligned on a number of measures relating to resources and efficiency, also create points of potential friction. Those points include mismatched impacts on yields and the sharing of gains. And while agrivoltaics addresses the global climate crisis it also comes with imbalance in political and commercial power between its players and the attendant injustices that can arise with that asymmetry.  

Nevertheless in the context of limited land  it provides a promising measure in the struggle to phase out carbon – one that could provide a template for elsewhere in the Global South.

Rohini Kamal

Rohini joined BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), Brac University as Research Fellow, and is leading Environment and Climate Change research. She is also an Assistant Professor for the …

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