A solar panel roof protects Pierre Escudie as he inspects the last thick grapes to be harvested from his vineyard in southwestern France, after a year of heavy frosts and scorching heat that damaged many of his neighbors’ crops.
Solar panels insulate grapes during periods of extreme cold and protect them from the strong rays of the sun during heat waves. The panels also rotate to allow more light to reach the vines on cloudy days.
Rising global temperatures coupled with the increasing frequency of heat waves, droughts and cold waves are changing the taste of French wines. Warmer temperatures cause the grapes to ripen earlier, resulting in more sugar in the grape.
“We will need solutions if we want to keep our grape varieties local,” Escudie told Reuters at the vineyard near Perpignan, where he grows Marselan, Grenache Gris and Chardonnay grapes.
Rotating solar panel technology could be the future, he said.
“We will have to do something because we are going from a Mediterranean climate to a semi-arid climate. Thirty years ago we thought that 32 degrees Celsius was an extreme temperature, when today it is 38 or even 40,” he added.
Agrivoltaics are a rapidly developing technology that places solar panels over fields and vineyards for dual use of the land by producing energy during periods of intense sunlight while allowing crops to grow.
Several companies in Europe are developing similar solar technology to cover a variety of crops, from wheat fields to fruit orchards.
Fight to survive
Lower sugar content was observed in crops protected by solar panels on Escudie’s land due to reduced sun exposure, allowing his vineyard to avoid excess alcohol during the fermentation process, said Alexandre Cartier , business manager for Sun’Agri, based in Lyon, which developed the solar panels.
“You can see that the vine has many leaves that are very green compared to the vine without shade,” said Escudie.
The panels also help insulate the soil underneath by around two degrees Celsius, protecting crops and vines from the kind of late frosts that devastated wine production across France in the spring.
A frost in late April this year was expected to reduce French wine production by almost a third compared to recent years.
In a win-win deal, an independent power company uses Escudie’s land to install solar panels to produce power that feeds into the grid and generates enough power to power about 650 homes in the area, says Sun’Agri. Escudie, in turn, benefits from crop protection by having the panels on your land.
Crop quality is prioritized over energy production in settings, meaning that 15-20% of potential energy supply is lost over the course of a year, Cartier said.
Sun’Agri’s technology processes weather data and determines when to shade crops and when to rotate panels and give crops sunlight.
The company aims to use its technology in around 40 small agricultural sites of between two and four hectares in the south of France, the Rhone Valley and around the Mediterranean during 2022 and 2023.
“When you are in areas affected by climate change, farmers are looking to survive,” said Cartier de Sun’Agri.