Flat, large, and gets a good amount of sun — These are the three greatest indicators of a land that is suitable for placing solar panels. Simultaneously, livestock thrives on these lands as well, which is why solar producers often lease farmlands to set up their operations.
Solar power can provide environmental benefits, but at the cost of diminished agriculture production. The solution, it seems, may be to bring out the sheep.
In the four years since solar sites were installed at farms in New South Wales, Australia, sheep grazing under the solar panels have produced better wool and more of it, according to growers cited in an initial ABC report.
Farmers described the arrangement as a “complete win-win” situation as the sheep helped keep grass and weeds down so that the panels wouldn’t lose their efficiency, while the panels prevented the soil from drying out and provided shade.
Moreover, according to some of the growers, sheep grazing under solar farms resulted in an increase in wool quality and quantity.
Grazing sheep under solar panels
As part of trials with the Parkes Show Society, farmer and grazier Tom Warren, for example, leases some parts of his land to a solar farm on which about 250 Merino ewes and wethers graze among solar panels. He stated that leasing his land to the solar farm and grazing his sheep there increased his income, with the carrying capacity of the land also increasing by roughly 25 percent.
While he hasn’t noticed an increase in wool quantity, the quality has improved, he said.
“It’ll be because of the conditions the sheep are living in,” Warren said to ABC. “It’s relatively clean, without burrs, without dust. There’s very, very little contamination of the wool and they’re protected from the sun as well.”
Moreover, his herd was able to graze almost all through the drought years, since water condensing on the solar panels in the mornings and trickling down to the soil kept some of the pastures green.
Meanwhile, a wool broker named Graeme Ostini, who has been running merino wethers at a solar farm, stated that grazing the animals under solar panels gave him much more wool.
“It is actually quite astonishing. Some of the sheep look fantastic,” Ostini said. “They’re growing exponentially and the wool cuts are in the top 5 per cent in the district.”
Backing trials with large-scale research
These trials need to be backed with numerous large-scale studies to find out whether co-location of agriculture and photovoltaics can be achieved with minimal environmental effects. Then, more studies can be conducted on the coexistence of solar and wind with farming as well.
Meanwhile, scientists are working on agrivoltaics, which is where solar technology meets traditional farming. In these systems, solar panels are installed at a higher level so that plants can grow underneath them, maximizing land productivity.
A University of Arizona study based on a detailed investigation of incoming sunlight, air temperature, and relative humidity found that current croplands are the “land covers with the greatest solar PV power potential”.