More fruit, more energy

02.02.2023 Valais is known for its fruit and vegetable crops. At Agroscope in Conthey, BFH-HAFL master student Jocelyn Widmer researched the influence of new types of solar panels on berry cultivation.

Innovative agrivoltaic solutions are on the rise. Compared to the traditional plastic tunnels widely used in agriculture, they seem promising in many respects. Since little is known about the influence of solar panels on the cultivation of berries, Jocelyn Widmer made this the subject of his MSc thesis. From April to October 2022, he observed the production of raspberries and strawberries under dynamic solar panels.

Jocelyn, why are dynamic solar panels promising for berry cultivation?  

Traditionally, strawberries and raspberries are mostly grown under plastic tunnels. These protect the crop from rain and improve the quality of the berries. The higher temperatures under the tunnels also allow harvesting to be started earlier and extended beyond the summer season. But the heat is not only beneficial. Fruits can burn, and the crop is more susceptible to pests. The translucent solar panels used in the project I am working on consist of two layers. One layer is dynamic and can be moved to let the sun’s rays through to the plants or not. This allows us to lower the temperature at plant level. The aim is to generate renewable energy while maintaining or even increasing the quality and quantity of the harvested fruits.

Jocelyn Widmer examines how strawberries develop under dynamic solar panels. (Images: Loredana Storno) Enlarge image
Jocelyn Widmer examines how strawberries develop under dynamic solar panels. (Images: Loredana Storno)

What is the focus of your research?

For my project, I am working with the start-up Insolight. It has developed a tool that allows farmers to control the amount of sunlight that reaches the plants through the dynamic solar panels. In other words, the tool helps to regulate the brightness in the field. Insolight's algorithm calculates the ideal amount of sunlight the plant needs. I have been observing how the conditions under the solar panels affect the development of the plants. To do this, we compared the fruit production and quality between the two systems (tunnel vs. solar panels). In addition, agronomic data on temperature, light quantity and intensity were collected during the research project to optimise the algorithm.

How is the research linked to the practice?

The study has already attracted external interest. Some farmers from Geneva visited the project in the early phase and journalists conducted interviews with us. It is important that the research creates value for practitioners. This is what I like most about doing research at Agroscope – being as close as possible to what is going on in agriculture, working closely with farmers and finding methods that will be used by them. The strength of Agroscope is the central integration of farmers in the development of methods.

Do you recommend doing a MSc thesis project at Agroscope?

Yes, it allows you to conduct practical research in a scientific environment. The projects are very dynamic. The supervisors are great coaches, and the colleagues are very motivating and supportive. It is also nice to link the project with the modules at BFH-HAFL. I recommend that you think about the thesis topic before you start the MSc programme at BFH-HAFL. There are many modules that are thesis related. With your topic already in mind, you can take full advantage of these modules.

Traditionally, the fruits are grown under such foil tunnels. Enlarge image
Traditionally, the fruits are grown under such foil tunnels.

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Subject area: Agriculture + Forest
Category: Studies, Research