In Japan they are learning that solar farms love mushrooms as much as anybody. The thing is that the smaller farms have been in a struggle to survive – like small farms pretty much everywhere else. And it does not help that rural populations have been shrinking, and the average Japanese farmer is now 67 years old. There are two farms that are going to test out a unique business model and see if it can reinvigorate the farming sector. The new model is setting up solar panels that have mushrooms growing beneath them.
Solar Panels Allow Farms to Prosper
These two farms are located in northeast Japan and are set up to generate solar power that has a combined 4,000 kilowatts which will be sold back to their local utilities. Underneath the solar panels will be the mushroom growing operation that is expected to annually yield around 40 tons of mushrooms – the cloud-ear variety of mushrooms which are generally shipped from China.
“The environment needs to be dark and humid for mushrooms to spawn,” says Minami Kikuchi, the person who is leading this “solar sharing” operation which is combining solar power and agriculture, and is the owner of Sustainergy, which is a startup company specializing in renewable energy. “We simply created the suitable environment for them by making use of vacant space under the solar panels.”
This company is also is working along with a company named Hitachi Capital, who is a leasing specialist that is providing the solar panels, and there is also Daiwa House Industry, who construct the panels and also maintain them.
“There is no doubt that Japanese agriculture is facing a serious crisis–the average age of Japanese farmers has been rising, and abandoned farmland has been expanding, mainly due to severe economic position of farmers,” Kikuchi wrote in a company email. “To make improvements in this situation, we designed the project of combination with solar farms at large scale so that farmers could obtain additional stable income. Of course, this renewable energy technology is contributing to the sustainable development of Japan too.”
Solar Farms Make Land More Productive
Today, it is estimated that around 10% of farmland in Japan is not being used, even though the vast majority of Japanese food is imported every year. Government tariffs are discouraging companies from using farmland for generating solar power, but there was a partial regulation change in 2013 which allows for solar power to be more viable as long as it is provided in combination with agriculture instead of replacing it.
Sustainergy believes there are other farms similar to these two which could potentially grow other types of crops which require just a little light, much like potatoes. In the United States, scientists that are from the University of Massachusetts have explored the potential for growing a wider variety of crops in these conditions. For instance, there is a farm located at South Deerfield which has spent two years creating plants such as broccoli, kale, and Swiss chard that are growing underneath rows of solar panels that are 9 feet high.
One added benefit of this growing arrangement is that in extremely hot weather, shade from the solar panels has actually helped the plants. For the most part, yields can be about the same or a little more reduced that the plants would be in open fields. The great thing is that the farmers could supplement their income by selling the power produced by the solar panels.
So in the end, these solar farms love mushrooms as much as anyone does.