Harvesting the Sun
According to the United States Energy Information Administration, there are approximately 2,500 commercial solar photovoltaic (PV) energy gathering and generating stations currently serving the nation’s electric grid. Most produce one- to five-megawatts (MW) of power. A five-MW facility requires roughly 40 acres of land. Some analysts maintain that, depending on how quickly the nation moves from non-renewable to renewable electricity, an additional 10-million acres of land could be needed by 2050. That’s an area greater than the land-mass of Massachusetts and New Jersey, combined. Although commercial solar arrays are frequently built on low-quality, low-impact sites, such as landfills, brownfields, abandoned mining land, and former industrial locations, they’re often placed on agricultural land, as well.
A couple of years ago, I wrote an article addressing solar development on agricultural land in the North Country. At the time, several large-scale PV energy generating projects were being considered in northern Franklin County, including a massive 150-MW power generating project on roughly 950-acres of land in the town and village of Malone, proposed by Minnesota-based Geronimo Energy. After the initial proposal encountered unwavering opposition from local residents, the application was scaled back to 50-MW, but resistance remained high and the project was eventually scrapped.
Like many others, I was extremely troubled by the size of the project, about losing such large tracts of sustainable agricultural land to industrial solar production. Not only was I apprehensive about the change of land use, I was concerned about land degradation, pollinator-habitat loss, and the possibility of other farmers eventually transitioning out of farming and into what I still see as industrial development.
A Compromise Solution
I know that solar PV development will contribute greatly to reaching both clean, renewable energy production goals and consumer demand, but when vegetation within and around an array is sprayed with herbicide and / or replaced by planting the land into a grass monoculture which is mowed regularly, or the entire site is covered with gravel, it can be devastating to existing ecosystems.
Several Cornell University researchers seem to have similar concerns. Nonetheless, they’ve come to see advancing solar PV energy production as an opportunity for both farmers and PV developers. And their solution is rather ewe-nique.
Todd Schmit is an associate professor at Cornell University’s SC Johnson College of Business’ Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. He’s also faculty director of Cornell’s Cooperative Enterprise Program, which is widely-recognized as a resource to enhance the skills of persons forming and leading cooperatives and group-action organizations in the Northeastern United States. He’s leading a three-year, $500,000 project, funded equally by Cornell University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to explore the potential economic and environmental benefits that could result from developing new and strengthening existing partnerships between farmers and solar energy developers.
In a recent article in the Cornell Chronicle, a weekly newspaper published by the University, Krisy Gashler, a writer for Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), quoted Schmit as saying, with regard to the maintenance of land that solar arrays are situated on, it’s, “a little ironic” that “we’re promoting renewable energy production and then, because we need to control the vegetation, we’re going out there with mowers that are using fossil fuels” (It seems to me that mowing through a solar array would be rather challenging, too.) “or spraying it with pesticides that are killing the plants.”
His solution — sheep. Because they’re small enough to control vegetative growth underneath the solar panels and won’t damage the solar installations by chewing cables or jumping on the panels, Schmit and others, including Lexie Hain, Executive Director of the American Solar Grazing Association, a nonprofit trade group that connects solar companies with shepherds, believe that sheep are the best-suited livestock species for what’s being called solar grazing or agri-voltaics; the combination of grazing livestock among the solar panels of arrays that are collecting and generating PV electricity.
Grazing benefits the soil, vegetation, and pollinators
Unlike mowing, rotational grazing of sheep can help maintain ecosystems, including vital habitat for native bees, butterflies (e.g. Monarchs), moths, and hummingbirds. And without the threat of noise or applications of toxic chemical herbicides, these pollinators, many of which are vital to sustainable forage, vegetable, and fruit production (e.g. alfalfa, soybeans, pumpkins, berries), all of which contribute substantially to our local economies and to our wellbeing, are able to thrive.
When using rotational grazing practices, sheep are continuously moved from one area of land to another, which allows more-recently-pastured areas to recover. This encourages the growth of deep perennial roots, which promotes better carbon sequestration. And when pasture-fed sheep poop, they put vital microorganisms back into the soil. Then they trample their manure into the ground, breaking it down into rich, organic, beneficial soil nutrients that promote even greater carbon sequestration.
Pollinator-friendly solar development can benefit managed pollinating insects, as well. Beekeepers might want to consider locating honeybee hives within a solar array, but not before assessing the site for suitability. Every location is different, with greater or lesser potential depending on site characteristics and the surrounding land.
Caption: Sheep grazing amid panels on a photovoltaic solar array site. Photo credit: Lexie Hain for Cornell Small Farms Program
Thinking solar households would reduce the total need of land.
thousands of houses, barns, garages, solar roofs of sides of barns could be used as solar panel installations. the idea of integrating with grazing is fine too, but using existing buildings as solar installs requires significantly less loss of land and resources of building frames. But there are many issues with solar…
1) installing solar on your home/buildings raises property values and also means higher taxes, raises insurance policies.
2) larger solar installs can mean land has to pay commercial tax rates and could mean going from agricultural taxes to industrial tax base, meaning taxes could go from a few thousand for 40 acres to $10-20,000 a year. burning up the profits.
3) lots of lawsuits from neighbors~it’s an eye sore, ect
4) solar farms do require regular washing of panels, replacement of inverters, ect.
5) resale of house, with large solar array the value and taxes are higher than surrounding houses, so people can shy away from house not wanting extra taxes, maintainance of array, or after 20 years, replacing and disposing of old panels.
There needs to be a tax free for life residential solar to make it much more economical.
Now we get to weather, you need lots of sunny days, clean snow off panels, dangers of wind storms.
Then theres location, clear line of sun all day, AKA no trees located east, south or west, no big hills/mountains blocking sun for hours, and no trees nearby that a storm can break branches or trees onto solar panels and doing massive damage.
Requires a lot of research into local, state laws, lawyer, possibly architech, contractors( installer, electrician, does nearby grid support?) permits, liabilities, new insurance. it is a wonderful idea of free electiricity, but its not nearly free or easy to get installed.
Thank you for this article. Solar farms in general seem to be an incredible lost opportunity. How hard can it be to plant sustainable pastures in between the rows of solar panels? Such designs would also send the message that nature finally too is being considered. Too much of our planning ignores nature. Biden’s BBB plans include nature as we all should in every aspect of our lives. Imagine the benefits of vast meadows which just happen to also include solar panels. There might be hope for our ever diminishing bird populations, and invertebrates in innovative nature also infrastructure plans.
Does grass grow well in shade? If so the sheep will have something to eat. I f not this idea may not be all it is cracked up to be. As always the devil is in the details. But yes think outside the box there are good ideas waiting to be discovered. Happy Holidays
grass does grow well in shade but at about 1/2 to 1/3 the rate, so lower amount of animals can graze. but raising panels up to 8-10 feet up, will increase amounts of growable grass too.
Thank you for sharing this.
I believe people are missing the opportunity to use solar panels in their farm.