By: Kate Ryan
Solar panels may be old news when it comes to scientific innovations, but Japanese farmers are repurposing them in a novel way. In an attempt to revive aging farming communities and contribute clean energy to the local grid, two farms in northeastern Japan are growing cloud-ear mushrooms underneath the solar panels. Together, the farms will produce a combined 4,000 kilowatts of solar power and 40 tons of cloud-ear mushrooms each year.
This agricultural achievement is a team effort, powered cooperatively by the renewable energy startup Sustainergy, solar panel company Hitachi Capital, and Daiwa House company, a Japanese construction company that typically builds prefabricated homes. Together, they addressed two problems that have been plaguing Japanese agricultural communities. First, farmers were leaving their posts at accelerating rates, resulting in the 10% farmland vacancy rate officials are seeing now. For this reason, the government has dissuaded companies from replacing agricultural lands with solar power farms even though they tend to be more profitable. Luckily, a regulatory changeup in 2013 allowed for farmers to combine renewable energy and crops on the same land.
But why mushrooms? Growing them in Japan was the second problem. “The environment needs to be dark and humid for mushrooms to spawn,” Minami Kikuchi told Fast Company. Kikuchi heads the “solar sharing” department of Sustainergy and added that they “simply created the suitable environment for [mushrooms] by making use of vacant space under the solar panels.”
Though the idea of solar sharing itself isn’t new. Akira Nagashima, an agricultural machinery engineer first conceived of the idea in 2004. The only change is the program has since been brought to scale.
As global populations continue to grow at an exponential rate, solar sharing offers a viable solution to dwindling space and rising food and energy needs. With Japan’s first program in the works, engineers and farmers will get a better sense of solar sharing’s benefits and applications. For instance, Sustainergy predicts a wider variety of low-light crops can be cultivated under solar panels, including potatoes. Meanwhile, there could be a future in the U.S. where grazing livestock and shade-providing solar panels go hand in hand. Only time will tell what possibilities solar sharing holds for farming communities around the globe.