Solar developers and sheep farmers are being increasingly found in harmonious co-existence across the United States—and reduced fire risk, heightened community acceptance, and a shot at spectacular cost savings are three key reasons why.
With the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) predicting that solar energy panels will cover 1.2 million hectares in the U.S. by 2030—increasing to 2.4 million by 2050—the farming communities that will play host to the panels are nervous, especially about lost productivity.
Enter the New York-based American Solar Grazing Association (ASGA), which has been working hard to connect solar developers with sheep farmers. The organization “now counts nearly 100 members across almost 30 states” since it was founded in 2017, writes Utility Dive.
“Costs of grazing livestock to manage vegetation growth can often run 30% less than traditional landscape maintenance,” it reports, citing ASGA co-founder Lexie Hain. “Grazing livestock can run roughly US$250 to $750 per acre, per year, according to ASGA, depending on region, topography, and size (and excluding perimeter maintenance).” One utility company, Florida’s Tampa Electric (TECO), found savings of 75% using the animals.
“Shepherds typically bring sheep to arrays for seasonal stretches and manage their grazing areas within the sites using movable fencing,” Utility Dive explains. Another benefit to the farmers is additional habitat for honey-producing bees and other pollinators.
The symbiosis between those who farm sheep and those who farm sunlight isn’t without challenges, though—which can sometimes come from unexpected corners. TECO ran into trouble with intake pipes that were clogged from wool from a particularly sheddy breed of short-haired sheep that had to be brought in because of Florida’s humid climate (and which enjoyed rubbing up against the pipes). Basic hog fencing was the solution.
In increasingly parched California, an agrivoltaics operation run by the Power Generation Group at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) found that the array cables had to receive special protection from sheep inclined to nibble at them. But the trouble was worth the effort, reports Utility Dive, with the sheep reducing one particular risk from traditional fuel-powered mowers: wildfires from errant sparks.