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Cool tomatoes? Agrivoltaics could help California crop, if the economics pan out

Drought and extreme heat in California’s Central Valley in recent years have meant shortages of tomatoes, particularly “processing tomatoes” used for sauce and ketchup. And such conditions are only expected to get worse with climate change.

Researchers note that the relatively nascent field of agrivoltaics — growing crops below and between solar panels — could offer help to the country’s billion-dollar-plus tomato industry. Shade provided by solar panels can help conserve water, create humidity, and lower temperatures that can become too much even for heat-loving tomatoes. 

An August paper by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory surveying agrivoltaic research sites across the country noted that, on average, tomato yields doubled compared to non-agrivoltaic sites, whereas other crops like wheat, cucumbers, potatoes, and lettuce showed negative impacts. 

When it is too hot, tomatoes will abort the development of fruit from flowers since the plant senses that the fruit won’t flourish. Solar panels cool the air down enough to avoid this process, research has shown. And most importantly, in a place like California, where the vast majority of the nation’s tomatoes are grown, solar panels can mean significantly less irrigation is needed. 

Florida, the nation’s second-largest tomato producer, typically has plenty of rain. But even there, climate change means temperatures are climbing, and drought has hit parts of the state. At the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2, cherry tomatoes doubled their yield when grown under solar panels, as noted in a 2019 study published in Nature. 

“They got plenty of light, plenty of water, and the temperature stress was brought down just below that threshold so they could fruit through the summer and get an extra month of production and more production per plant,” said Greg Barron-Gafford, lead author of the paper and associate professor in the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona. 

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