Today’s most complex challenges require an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach, and Western University and Ivey Business School are uniquely positioned to advance robust solutions through a broad range of research strengths, such as developing renewable energy and open-source technologies to reduce the effects of climate change, and building smart cities to optimize energy, telecommunication and transportation networks.
Harvesting sunshine is not in the job description of most Canadian farmers, but Western researchers want to change that.
“Agrivoltaics,” using solar panels to generate electricity on a farm still growing food, would not only contribute to more sustainable and cost-efficient farming operations, but potentially also create an additional revenue stream for farmers. They could sell surplus power into regional grids when the growing season is over, said Joshua Pearce, the John M. Thompson Chair in Information Technology and Innovation at the Thompson Centre for Engineering Leadership & Innovation.
While some of Canada’s conventional solar farms are already benefiting from a symbiotic relationship with agriculture through the use of sheep to trim the grass beneath the panels which, anecdotally, leads to better quality wool, Canada lags behind Europe, Asia and the U.S. in the implementation of photovoltaic technology developed specifically for agriculture.
Pearce said studies in the U.S. have shown yield increases of more than 200 per cent on farms using agrivoltaics, mainly through less water use. “As we enter into an age of severe climate change and the impact that will have on agriculture in Canada, having protection from being too hot actually makes a lot of sense,” he adds.
The current obstacles to widespread adoption of agrivoltaics in Canada are primarily regulatory. For example, solar panels are not permitted on agricultural land surrounding Toronto, which may have made sense 10 years ago when the objective was to protect valuable farmland from conventional solar farms, said Pearce. “But now, if you allow or even encourage agrivoltaics, you get the renewable energy with no carbon emissions, a reduction in pollution and increased yield for the same crops that are being grown right now.”
The design and placement of solar panels on farmland depends on the type of crop being grown and is an important focus of Western’s research. PhD candidate Koami Soulemane Hayibo is part of the Free Appropriate Sustainable Technology (FAST) research group looking at wood-based racking for solar panels to replace the more costly metal racks that have typically been the primary support structure up to now.
Hayibo is also exploring optimal designs for solar panel modules that may need to be tilted or moved during harvest season or at any other time.
“For smaller farms in particular, solar panels need to be affordable, easy to install, maintain and operate and be cost-effective and durable,” he said.
Pearce said a farmer’s initial capital outlay to install photovoltaic technology would be offset by higher crop yields and cost savings plus the opportunity to sell surplus power at different times of the year – and with new solar projects now being designed to last for up to 50 years, the life of any additional income stream could be considerable.
“These are solid state devices with no moving parts, so there’s no reason they should fail until they start to delaminate and that takes decades,” he notes. “This is an investment you can think of for your grandchildren.”
Pearce believes photovoltaic power is the future of sustainable electricity generation.
“The real advantage is that it works everywhere at every scale. You can provide power for your house through solar panels on the roof, for Western University advancing renewable energy adoption and smart cities the farm by doing something like building a solar panel fence around a field, and you can power large cities or industry using large-scale agrivoltaics,” he said.
Sustainable Intelligent Cities
Technology to support the move towards global sustainability is advancing steadily, but unless it can be harnessed to work as a single system in rapidly-expanding mega-cities the true benefits may be lost, said Bissan Ghaddar, an associate professor of management science at Western’s Ivey Business School.
Her work on the problems at the intersection of smart cities, machine learning and optimization models is focused on three key elements of a “smart city” – energy, transportation and telecom – and how these components can operate in harmony to promote sustainability.
“Energy, transportation and telecom networks have always been thought about as independent, without considering how one can benefit the other,” said Ghaddar. “If we want to start talking about sustainability and intelligent cities, we have to start thinking about the integration of these components.”
For example, she adds, electrified transport, both commercial and private, can be made more sustainable through smart grids, and 5G telecom networks can provide the information needed to support sustainable transportation systems. Canada currently lags behind Europe and the U.S. in providing the regulatory framework and infrastructure to take advantage of the advancing technology, said Ghaddar.
“We need policies and regulations to provide financial incentives for businesses and households to adopt these technologies. For example, e-commerce companies like Amazon and recently Walmart are already using EVs for last mile deliveries, but to encourage more widespread adopt-ability we need the infrastructure to support this type of transportation,” she says.
The bottom line, adds Ghaddar, is a more sustainable use of resources and a more integrated utilization of existing disruptive technologies, which will open up opportunities that haven’t been seen before.
“Integrating these systems together will result in new business models, better utilization and more efficient resource planning. That’s what my research is about,” she says.
Excellence in designing solutions for a sustainable future earned Western first rank in Canada and third in the world in the 2022 Times Higher Education Impact Ranking, a global ranking of universities working toward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
This article originally appeared in a Globe and Mail sponsor content feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.