by AD CRABLE, Bay Journal News Service
A solar power boom generated by new renewable energy mandates is unfurling in the Chesapeake Bay region – with Virginia ranking ninth in the nation for new solar capacity in 2021.
With many solar arrays ending up on farmland, a movement is fast taking hold to make sure that they will benefit the environment, agriculture and wildlife, and not just create a sea of silicon.
Allowing sheep to graze among solar panels has become one attractive antidote.
Grazing by sheep and other livestock joins other dual uses: planting groundcover to benefit pollinators, growing marketable plants such as cherry tomatoes and lavender under the panels, installing beehives and maximizing soil health practices to improve the land for later ag use.
Projects that combine farming and solar energy are called agrivoltaic.
State agencies in Virginia, Maryland and New York have all created pollinator-friendly scorecards for solar developers, underscoring the expectation that environmentally beneficial groundcover will become the norm on both rural and urban solar farms.
“Solar [arrays] on farmland should be required to be dual use,” said Arjun Makhijani, founder of the Maryland-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.
The use of solar sites for livestock grazing is still in its infancy, but flocks of sheep are already grazing contentedly under and around glass panels in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and New York.
By welcoming the grazers, solar operators save money on land maintenance. After the cost of leasing the land, vegetation management is often their top expense.
Sheep owners get access to new grazing pastures while receiving payments to boot, adding precious income at a time when many farmers are struggling.
Studies find that sheep farmers often are paid $300 to $500 an acre.
There are environmental benefits as well. For example, a new study funded by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that native vegetation munched on by sheep shows an uptick in carbon capture and improves the soil by increasing the cycling of nutrients, carbon and water.
Why are sheep the most popular choice, at least for now? Because most solar arrays are too close to the ground to accommodate cattle. A solar project being built in Howard County, MD, though, has panels 6 feet off the ground so cows can graze on hay planted underneath.
Goats tend to eat wiring and jump onto the panels. Pigs wallow. Sheep, on the other hand, fit nicely under the panels, typically built 2 to 3 feet off the ground, and they keep their heads down for the business at hand. The panels provide shelter and shade.
Studies are also finding that vegetation planted for grazing under solar panels helps keep the panels cool, boosting energy production.
“Normally, we hired crews with lawn mowers and Weed Wackers. For a solar business focused on sustainability, the idea of using fossil-fuel equipment is counterintuitive,” said Keith Hevenor of Nexamp, one of the largest solar developers in the nation. The New Jersey-based company has sheep grazing at 14 sites in New York and may double that total by the end of the year.
“It’s been a great fit for us,” he said.
It seems too good to be true. But it’s not, said New York sheep farmer Lexie Hain, who helped form the grassroots American Solar Grazing Association in 2018 to connect and mobilize sheep farmers and solar operators around the country.
“Sheep are the natural fit for solar. It’s creating a shift,” Hain said. “This is a land-use change as well as a business opportunity for people, and they are responding. Solar grazing is happening on its own because it works better than mechanical mowing. It’s kind of remarkable.”
The growing interest has already prompted a seed mix specially designed for solar grazing by sheep. Fuzz & Buzz by Pennsylvania-based Ernst Conservation Seeds combines various nutritious grasses favored by sheep with blooming plants that draw pollinators and improve soil health.
With the accelerating interest in solar grazing, the question may soon be if there are enough sheep to go around. On average, it takes about one to five sheep per acre to keep plant growth trimmed.
In Virginia, where an estimated 7,500 to 35,000 acres will be needed for solar projects to meet the state’s goal of 50-percent renewable energy, there are 72,000 sheep. Approximately 417 solar projects are awaiting approval from PJM Interconnection, the nation’s largest electric grid operator. At the upper end of the estimated need for solar acres, there would not be enough sheep to cover that ground.
Despite its multiple benefits, sheep grazing among solar fields has not been universally embraced and is seen by some as enabling the conversion of prime farmland to energy production.
Some think solar belongs only or primarily on rooftops, parking lots, abandoned mine land and industrial or commercial sites.
Especially where prime soil is taken out of production, some groups don’t want to see farmland converted into industrial energy sites, even if theoretically the land can resume agricultural use, on healthier soil, after solar contracts end, typically in 25 years.
Roughly 61% of solar arrays built on Virginia farmland so far have been on the highest-rated soil, according to a study by Aaron Berryhill of Virginia Commonwealth University.
“The scale and pace at which this is happening means reasonable mitigation measures need to be strengthened,” said Ethan Winter, the American Farmland Trust’s northeast solar specialist.
Ad Crable is a Bay Journal staff writer based in Pennsylvania. This article was first published in the May 2021 issue of the Bay Journal and was distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.