A trial of sheep grazing under solar panels in New South Wales could lead to further research, after local graziers claimed that panel-bedecked pastures better sustained feed supplies through drought and improved the wool quality of their flocks.
“Local graziers have labelled the set-up a ‘complete win-win,’ with the sheep helping to keep grass and weeds down so as not to obscure the panels,” reports ABC News.
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Wool brokers and graziers point to several improvements the panels can bring. In addition to providing shade for the sheep, grass, and soil during drought, the panels condensed evaporating water that then trickled back to the ground. Their observations match results from previous research in Oregon that found solar panels can boost outputs of several grazing grass species by 328%—by significantly improving water efficiency.
The increased soil moisture not only helped maintain growth for grass and other forage, but also reduced the amount of airborne dust that can contaminate wool, says PV Magazine.
“It is actually quite astonishing. Some of the sheep look fantastic. They’re growing exponentially and the wool cuts are in the top 5% in the district,” said Graeme Ostini, a wool broker who grazes Merino wethers at a solar farm near Parkes.
While Ostini says his sheep were slightly lighter stocked than the district average—meaning there were fewer sheep per unit of land—Dubbo farmer and grazier Tom Warren said his stocking rate was slightly higher than average, and he noticed an increase in wool quality though not quantity. He also said he had increased his income by leasing his land to the solar farm and grazing his sheep there.
Madeline Taylor, an energy policy and landholder rights researcher, said the link between solar panels and farming needs to be studied further, and more pilot projects must be funded.
“We’re starting to get a really good database of studies showing how the co-location of agriculture and photovoltaics can be done successfully,” she said. “We’ve seen that it works really well for grazing. Now, believe it or not, cropping can also really work very well alongside solar energy.”
But the grazing approach is not without its skeptics. Some landholders in the area are concerned that the coexistence of solar farms and agriculture could have bad effects on dryland salinity, and farmers near solar farms in Wagga Wagga have raised concerns that runoff from the panels could raise an already-high water table, reports ABC News.
Citing concerns that the approach has been “oversold,” Independent Wagga Wagga MP Joe McGirr is calling for a moratorium on further solar farm developments until results from a review—commissioned by New South Wales Energy Minister Matt Kean to “consider any opportunities to improve existing frameworks, such as a coexistence of solar and wind with farming”—was completed.
“We’re having the developments being done,” and “the discussion and research is going to come later,” McGirr said. “My concern is it will be too late, the damage will be done.”