Paul Mwebaze: Exploring ‘Agrivoltaics’ from the Ground Up

Paul Mwebaze

Paul Mwebaze likes American football, European football, and agrivoltaics. Let’s break that down if it’s confusing: the first is football, the second is soccer, and the third is integrating agricultural crops and solar panels on the same piece of land.

Mwebaze dedicates his days to iSEE’s Sustainably Colocating Agricultural and Photovoltaic Electricity Systems (SCAPES) project, studying the economic balance between agricultural and photovoltaic systems. SCAPES is a new project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, at $10M over four years.

Mwebaze holds a master’s and Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics and has published papers in leading economics journals; he is also an active member of the International Association of Environmental and Resource Economists. Drawn to Professor Madhu Khanna’s unparalleled reputation in environmental economics, Mwebaze came to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to work with Khanna, the ACES Distinguished Professor of Agricultural & Consumer Economics (and iSEE Interim Director).

Together, PI and pupil work on SCAPES, which provides interdisciplinary scientific research, extension, and education about sustainable agrivoltaic technologies. These systems will increase the economic well-being and resilience of U.S. farmers by maintaining or — even enhancing — food production while also increasing renewable energy generation.

This research is important, they say, because the competition is increasing as to whether land should be used for agriculture or energy production.

“SCAPES will provide the science to help reduce this land-use competition,” Mwebaze said. “It will provide climate-smart solutions to improve crop water-use efficiency, profitability, economic resilience of agriculture, and land productivity — including both crop and electricity yield.”

Within this large goal, Mwebaze spends most of his day coordinating and managing the SCAPES project activities. He also collaborates with his teammates to research the economic implications of using land for food and energy production simultaneously, and he brainstorms with Khanna weekly.

Beyond collaboration within the U of I, the SCAPES team also extends to the University of Arizona, Auburn University, Colorado State University, the University of Illinois Chicago, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory as the researchers explore different climates and land types.

“Research collaboration provides opportunities to learn how complementary disciplines can be applied to agrivoltaics to develop more innovative solutions,” Mwebaze said.

The fruits of the researchers’ labors will most pertinently benefit American farmers — increasing their yields and profits — but SCAPES will also improve local sustainability by educating the public and generating renewable power.

“The SCAPES project research-education-extension plan will facilitate adopting climate-smart agrivoltaic systems, leading to increased food and energy production and a more sustainable and resilient agricultural sector,” Mwebaze said.

The plan is robust, including fact sheets, a website, and educational programming. These resources will be updated regularly and disseminated to schools, summer camps, and museums.

Looking ahead, Mwebaze is totally focused on SCAPES. He is excited about applying for more funding to begin a potential second phase of the project.

“There is so much work to do in the agrivoltaic space now and in the future!” he said.

— Article by iSEE Communications Intern Maria Maring