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Solar Power, Biofuel Production Could Complement Each Other

STANFORD, Calif., April 11, 2014 — Photovoltaic installations may be able to give a boost to biofuels production and vice versa, particularly in sunny and dry regions of the US.

Computer simulations developed by scientists at Stanford University show that growing certain plants around photovoltaic equipment in southern California could help conserve water used to keep windblown dirt off the solar panels to ensure they operate as efficiently as possible. The crops would capture water runoff and help anchor the soil.

"It could be a win-win situation," said Sujith Ravi, a postdoctoral scholar in the Stanford School of Earth Sciences. "Water is already limited in many areas and could be a major constraint in the future. This approach could allow us to produce energy and agriculture with the same water."

The researchers are still determining which plants to use in this initiative. Agave is among those possible, as it thrives in high temperatures and poor soil. Most of the agave plant can be converted to liquid ethanol, unlike corn or grain, the researchers said. Used alone or mixed with gasoline, agave biofuel could potentially power lower-emission vehicles.

"[This] work is a great example of how thinking beyond a single challenge like water or food or energy sometimes leads to creative solutions," said David Lobell, a professor in environmental Earth system science at Stanford, a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

The work was supported by the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy at Stanford. The research is published in Environmental Science & Technology. (doi: 10.1021/es404950n

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