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Joshua Pearce, a professor in Western University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Ivey Business School, and Koami Hayibo, a Western Engineering PhD candidate, are advancing solar-powered, open-source technology.CHRISTOPHER KINDRATSKY

Today’s most complex challenges require an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach, and Western University and Ivey Business School are uniquely positioned to advance robust solutions through a broad range of research strengths, such as developing renewable energy and open-source technologies to reduce the effects of climate change, and building smart cities to optimize energy, telecommunication and transportation networks.

Energy solutions on farms

Harvesting sunshine is not in the job description of most Canadian farmers, but researchers at Western University in London, Ontario, want to change that.

“Agrivoltaics,” using solar panels to generate electricity on a farm still growing food, would not only contribute to more sustainable and cost-efficient farming operations but potentially also create an additional revenue stream for farmers who could sell surplus power into regional grids when the growing season is over, says Joshua Pearce, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Ivey Business School at Western, and leader of the university’s Free Appropriate Sustainable Technology (FAST) research group.

“The primary benefits are higher crop yields and water savings because the panels cool and protect the crops,” says Dr. Pearce. While some of Canada’s conventional solar farms are already benefiting from a symbiotic relationship with agriculture through using sheep to trim the grass beneath the panels which, anecdotally, leads to better quality wool, Canada lags Europe, Asia and the U.S. in the implementation of photovoltaic technology developed specifically for agriculture.

Dr. Pearce says studies in the U.S. have shown yield increases of more than 200 per cent on farms using agrivoltaics, mainly through less water use. “As we enter into an age of severe climate change and the impacts that will have on agriculture in Canada, having protection from being too hot actually makes a lot of sense,” he adds.

The current obstacles to widespread adoption of agrivoltaics in Canada are primarily regulatory. For example, solar panels are not permitted on agricultural land surrounding Toronto, which may have made sense 10 years ago when the objective was to protect valuable farmland from conventional solar farms, says Dr. Pearce. “But now, if you allow or even encourage agrivoltaics, you get the renewable energy with no carbon emissions, a reduction in pollution and increased yield for the same crops that are being grown right now.”

The design and placement of solar panels on farmland depends on the type of crop being grown and is an important focus of Western’s research. PhD candidate Koami Soulemane Hayibo is part of the research group looking at wood-based racking for solar panels to replace the more costly metal racks that have typically been the primary support structure up to now.

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Mr. Hayibo is also exploring optimal designs for solar panel modules that may need to be tilted or moved during harvest season or at any other time.

“For smaller farms in particular, solar panels need to be affordable; easy to install, maintain and operate; and be cost effective and durable,” he says.

Dr. Pearce says a farmer’s initial capital outlay to install photovoltaic technology would be offset by higher crop yields and cost savings plus the opportunity to sell surplus power at different times of the year – and with new solar projects now being designed to last for up to 50 years, the life of any additional income stream could be considerable.

“These are solid-state devices with no moving parts, so there’s no reason they should fail until they start to delaminate, and that takes decades,” he notes. “This is an investment you can think of for your grandchildren.”

Dr. Pearce believes photovoltaic power is the future of sustainable electricity generation.

“The real advantage is that it works everywhere at every scale. You can provide power for your house through solar panels on the roof, for the farm by doing something like building a solar panel fence around a field, and you can power large cities or industry using large-scale agrivoltaics,” he says.

Sustainable intelligent cities

Technology to support the move towards global sustainability is advancing steadily, but unless it can be harnessed to work as a single system in rapidly expanding mega-cities, the true benefits may be lost, says Bissan Ghaddar, an associate professor of Management Science at Western’s Ivey Business School.

Her work on the problems at the intersection of smart cities, machine learning and optimization models is focused on three key elements of a “smart city” – energy, transportation and telecom – and how these components can operate in harmony to promote sustainability.

“Energy, transportation and telecom networks have always been thought about as independent, without considering how one can benefit the other,” says Dr. Ghaddar. “If we want to start talking about sustainability and intelligent cities, we have to start thinking about the integration of these components.”

For example, she adds, electrified transport, both commercial and private, can be made more sustainable through smart grids, and 5G telecom networks can provide the information needed to support sustainable transportation systems.

"If we want to start talking about sustainability and intelligent cities, we have to start thinking about the integration of [energy, transportation and telecom networks].

Dr. Bissan Ghaddar
Associate Professor of Management Science at Western’s Ivey Business School

Canada currently lags behind Europe and the U.S. in providing the regulatory framework and infrastructure to take advantage of the advancing technology, says Dr. Ghaddar.

“We need policies and regulations to provide financial incentives for businesses and households to adopt these technologies. For example, e-commerce companies like Amazon and recently Walmart are already using EVs for last mile deliveries, but to encourage more widespread adoptability we need the infrastructure to support this type of transportation,” she says.

The bottom line, adds Dr. Ghaddar, is a more sustainable use of resources and a more integrated utilization of existing disruptive technologies, which will open up opportunities that haven’t been seen before.

“Integrating these systems together will result in new business models, better utilization and more efficient resource planning. That’s what my research is about,” she says.

Excellence in designing solutions for a sustainable future earned Western University first in Canada and third in the world in the 2022 Times Higher Education Impact Ranking, a global ranking of universities working toward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Advertising feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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