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Agricultural Applications of Solar Energy

Solar energy can supply and/or supplement many farm energy requirements. The following is a brief discussion of a few applications of solar energy technologies in agriculture. For more information, you may wish to consult the publications listed below.

Crop and Grain Drying

Using the sun to dry crops and grain is one of the oldest and most widely used applications of solar energy. The simplest, and least expensive technique is to allow crops to dry naturally in the field, or to spread grain and fruit out in the sun after harvesting. The disadvantage of these methods is that the crops and grain are subject to damage by birds, rodents, wind, and rain, and contamination by windblown dust and dirt. More sophisticated solar dryers protect grain and fruit, reduce losses, dry faster and more uniformly, and produce a better quality product than open-air methods.

The basic components of a solar dryer are an enclosure or shed, screened drying trays or racks, and a solar collector. In hot, arid climates the collector may not even be necessary. The southern side of the enclosure itself can be glazed to allow sunlight to dry the material. The collector can be as simple as a glazed box with a dark colored interior to absorb the solar energy that heats air. The air heated in the solar collector moves, either by natural convection or forced by a fan, up through the material being dried. The size of the collector and rate of airflow depends on the amount of material being dried, the moisture content of the material, the humidity in the air, and the average amount of solar radiation available during the drying season.

There is a relatively small number of large solar crop dryers in the United States. This is because the cost of the solar collector can be high, and drying rates are not as controllable as they are with natural gas or propane powered dryers. Using the collector at other times of the year, such as for heating farm buildings, may make a solar dryer more cost-effective. It is possible to make small, very low cost dryers out of simple materials. These systems can be useful for drying vegetables and fruit for home use.

Space and Water Heating

Livestock and dairy operations often have substantial air and water heating requirements. Modern pig and poultry farms raise animals in enclosed buildings, where it is necessary to carefully control temperature and air quality to maximize the health and growth of the animals. These facilities need to replace the indoor air regularly to remove moisture, toxic gases, odors, and dust. Heating this air, when necessary, requires large amounts of energy. With proper planning and design, solar air/space heaters can be incorporated into farm buildings to preheat incoming fresh air. These systems can also induce or increase natural ventilation levels during summer months. Solar water heating systems can provide low to medium temperature hot water for pen cleaning.

Commercial dairy farms use large amounts of energy to heat water to clean equipment, as well as to warm and stimulate cows’ udders. Heating water and cooling milk can account for up to 40% of the energy used on a dairy farm. Solar water heating systems may be used to supply all or part of these hot water requirements.

Greenhouse Heating

Another agricultural application of solar energy is greenhouse heating. Commercial greenhouses typically rely on the sun to supply their lighting needs, but are not designed to use the sun for heating. They rely on gas or oil heaters to maintain the temperatures necessary to grow plants in the colder months. Solar greenhouses, however, are designed to utilize solar energy for both heating and lighting. A solar greenhouse has thermal mass to collect and store solar heat energy, and insulation to retain this heat for use during the night and on cloudy days. A solar greenhouse is oriented to maximize southern glazing exposure. Its northern side has little or no glazing, and is well insulated. To reduce heat loss, the glazing itself is also more efficient than single-pane glass, and various products are available ranging from double pane to "cellular" glazing. A solar greenhouse reduces the need for fossil fuels for heating. A gas or oil heater may serve as a back-up heater, or to increase carbon dioxide levels to induce higher plant growth.

Remote Electricity Supply

Solar electric, or photovoltaic (PV), systems convert sunlight directly to electricity. They can power an electrical appliance directly, or store solar energy in a battery. A "remote" location can be several miles or as little as 50 feet (15 meters) from a power source. PV systems may be much cheaper than installing power lines and step down transformers in applications such as electrical fencing, lighting, and water pumping.

Water Pumping

Photovoltaic (PV) water pumping systems may be the most cost-effective water pumping option in locations where there is no existing power line. When properly sized and installed, PV water pumps are very reliable and require little maintenance. The size and cost of a PV water pumping system depends on the local solar resource, the pumping depth, water demand, and system purchase and installation costs. Although today’s prices for PV panels make most crop irrigation systems too expensive, PV systems are very cost effective for remote livestock water supply, pond aeration, and small irrigation systems.


Agricultural technology is changing rapidly. Farm machinery, farm buildings, and production facilities are constantly being improved. You should consider these factors when purchasing and installing a solar system. Payback periods may be shortened by the multiple use of a solar system, such as for space heating and crop drying.


The following publications provide more information on agricultural applications of solar energy. This bibliography was reviewed in February 2002.

Advances in Solar Technology; Volume 3: Heating, Agricultural and Photovoltaic Applications of Solar Energy, (Vol. 3), H. Garg, D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1987. Available from Kluwer Academic Publishers (see Source List below). 174 pp., $247.00, ISBN 9027724326.

Heat Exchangers for Livestock Housing, Cooperative Extension Publications. Available from Cooperative Extension Publications (see Source List below). $0.30, Order Number A3312.

Heating, Cooling, and Tempering Air for Livestock Housing (1st ed.), Midwest Plan Service, 1990. Available from Midwest Plan Service (see Source List below). 48 pp., $6.00, Order Number MWPS-34.

Large Commercial Passive Solar Greenhouse Plans, Solstice Publications. Available from Solstice Publications/Domestic Technologies Inc., P.O. Box 2043, Evergreen, CO 80439; Phone: (303) 674-7700; Fax: (303) 674-7772; Email: . $139.95.00, Order No. BP-044. Blueprints for a 5,000-square foot, solar heated commercial greenhouse.

Low Temperature and Solar Grain Drying Handbook (1st ed.), Midwest Plan Service, 1980. Available from Midwest Plan Service (see Source List below). 86 pp., $6.00, Order Number MWPS-22.

Natural Ventilating Systems for Livestock Housing (1st ed.), Midwest Plan Service, 1989. Available from Midwest Plan Service (see Source List below). 86 pp., $5.00, Order Number MWPS-33.

New Perspectives for Energy Savings in Agriculture: Current Progress in Solar Technologies, V. Goedseels, et al, D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1986. Available from Kluwer Academic Publishers (see Source List below). 123 pp., $264.00, ISBN 9027723192.

Photovoltaic Power as a Utility Service: Guidelines for Livestock Water Pumping, K. Stokes, et al., Neos Corporation for Sandia National Laboratory, 1993. Available from the PV Design Assistance Center, Sandia National Laboratory, Albuquerque, NM 87185-0753; Phone: (505) 844-3698. 177 pp., Free.

Solar Crop Drying (2 Volumes), M. Malik, et al, CRC Press, Inc., 1987. Out of print. Reproductions available from Franklin Book Company, 7804 Montgomery Avenue, Elkins, PA 19027; Phone: (800) 323-2665. Vol. 1, $101.00, ISBN 0849368839; Vol. 2, $115.00, ISBN 0849368847. There are additional charges for shipping and taxes.

Solar Energy in Agriculture and Industry: Potential of Solar Heat in European Agriculture, An Assessment, G. Schepens et al , D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1986. Available from Kluwer Academic Publishers (see Source List below). 216 pp., $161.00, ISBN 9027722951.

Solar Greenhouses: Underground, D. Geery, Tab Books, 1982. 408 pp. ISBN 0830612726. Out of print.

Solar Heating for Milking Parlors, Cooperative Extension Publications. Available from Cooperative Extension Publications (see Source List below). $0.50, Order Number AF2266.

Solar Heating for Swine Buildings, Cooperative Extension Publications. Available from Cooperative Extension Publications (see Source List below). $0.35, Order Number PIH090.

Solar Livestock Housing Handbook (1st ed.), Midwest Plan Service, 1983. Available from Midwest Plan Service (see Source List below). 88 pp., $7.00, Order Number MWPS-23.

Sow Solar Farrowing House, Midwest Plan Service. Available from Midwest Plan Service (see Source List below). $4.00, Order Number MWPS-81902.

Use Solar Energy to Ventilate Livestock Buildings and Dry Grain, Cooperative Extension Publications, 1980. 4 pp., Out of print.

Source List

Cooperative Extension Publications
45 North Charter Street
Madison, WI 53715
Phone: (toll-free) 877- 947-7827 or 608-262-3346
Fax: (608) 265-8052

Kluwer Academic Publishers
Customer Service Department
P.O. Box 358, Accord Station
Hingham, MA 02018-0358
Phone: (781) 871-6600; Fax: (781) 681-9045

Midwest Plan Service
122 Davidson Hall
Iowa State University
Ames, Iowa 50011-3080
Phone: (800) 562-3618
Fax: (515) 294-9589

Additional information on the use of solar energy in agriculture is available from:

U.S. Department of Agriculture
General Reference Desk, Room 111
Beltsville, MD 20705
Phone: (301) 504-5479

This brief was updated in February 2002.

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