Tag Archive for: Solar Grazing

What are asset managers looking for when they evaluate proposals from solar graziers? What kinds of concerns do asset managers have about grazing that need to be resolved to get to the contract stage?

Keanen Ryan and Lexie Hain from Lightsource bp joined us for a wonderful conversation that answered these questions from the solar operations perspective. Keanen and Lexie also discussed what they’re looking for from graziers in terms of services and experience in order to meet the economic and sustainability standards of Lightsource bp.

The Solar Industry’s Mower of Choice: Sheep 

“The panels blanket nearly 1,500 acres of a solar farm in Deport, a town near the Oklahoma border. Ely Valdez, the boss, makes sure prairie grasses don’t block sunshine from the panels. His sheep do most of the work. Sheep, the surprise workhorse of renewable energy, are generating several million dollars in annual revenue tidying up solar farms nationwide. 

‘It’s changing all of our lives,’ said Mr. Valdez. He expects the flocks he oversees to soon generate several hundred thousand dollars in annual revenue. The number of acres of solar fields employing sheep in the U.S. has grown to tens of thousands from 5,000 in 2018, according to estimates by people in the business. Flock owners charge as much as $500 an acre a year. 

The solar industry auditioned several methods for the job, but requirements weeded out expected contenders. Power mowers, which can’t maneuver easily enough under panels to avoid the risk of damaging equipment, are of limited use. “Sheep truly are the appropriate technology for this,” said Michael Baute, vice president of regenerative energy and carbon removal at solar developer Silicon Ranch Corp., based in Nashville, Tenn.” – The Wall Street Journal 

The “Five C’s” of Agrivoltaics 

“These are among the most important findings of an ongoing agrivoltaics research project called Innovative Solar Practices Integrated with Rural Economies and Ecosystems (InSPIRE). Led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office, InSPIRE has just completed its second, three-year phase of research into the synergies between solar energy and agriculture.  

In its first phase, InSPIRE tried to quantify the benefits of agrivoltaics and record some early best practices in the emerging field. The project adopts a big-tent approach to agrivoltaics, welcoming any dual use of solar-occupied land that provides ecological or agricultural benefits. That could mean grazing cattle or sheep, growing crops, cultivating pollinator-friendly native plants, or providing ecosystem services and restoring degraded soil.  

The InSPIRE project found five central elements that lead to agrivoltaics success, summarized as ‘the five C’s’: 

  • Climate, Soil, and Environmental Conditions — The ambient conditions of a location must be appropriate for both solar generation and the desired crops or ground cover.  
  • Configurations, Solar Technologies, and Designs — The choice of solar technology, the site layout, and other infrastructure can affect everything from how much light reaches the solar panels to whether a tractor, if needed, can drive under the panels. “This infrastructure will be in the ground for the next 25 years, so you need to get it right for your planned use. It will determine whether the project succeeds,” said James McCall, an NREL researcher working on InSPIRE.  
  • Crop Selection and Cultivation Methods, Seed and Vegetation Designs, and Management Approaches— Agrivoltaic projects should select crops or ground covers that will thrive under panels in their local climate and that are profitable in local markets.  
  • Compatibility and Flexibility — Agrivoltaics should be designed to accommodate the competing needs of solar owners, solar operators, and farmers or landowners to allow for efficient agricultural activities.  
  • Collaboration and Partnerships — For any project to succeed, communication and understanding between groups is crucial.” –  NREL 
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Illinois University Team Developing Interactive Agrisolar Game  

“A team led by University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign researchers is developing an educational game it hopes can inspire future farmers to think differently about solar power. The app aims to teach kids the emerging concept of agrivoltaics, in which agricultural production is combined with solar photovoltaics. The game will be backed by science from the growing niche of research looking into how solar panel placement affects the growth of various crops.  

‘Dual-use land is really a great idea, intuitively, so why not build an app that lets kids explore these really interesting ideas while they’re playing a game?’ said H. Chad Lane, associate chair for educational psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. 

Think Farmville, but instead of gamifying every aspect of running a farm, it will focus on the interaction between crops and solar panels. Researchers are discovering that several plant types can perform better when partially shaded by panels; for others, the reduced production can be offset by extra revenue from selling solar power to the electric grid.” – Energy News Network 

Merging community solar and AgriSolar could aid the Department of Energy’s (DOE) goal of saving $1 billion in energy costs through community solar by 2025. Not only would merging community solar and AgriSolar help DOE reach that goal, but would also provide other opportunities and benefits such as the regeneration of soil on solar sites, reducing fuel-operated maintenance demands, and increasing the likelihood of future solar development(s). 

What is community solar? 

Community solar could be an ideal method for low-income households who might be looking to use solar energy and use Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) assistance to pay for their energy bills. LIHEAP funds cannot be used for things like up-front installation costs of typical solar participation methods (non-community solar) or the household ultimately owning the solar equipment. Community solar participation eliminates these issues due to the solar farm and panels not being developed, owned or operated by the LIHEAP recipient.  

LIHEAP Participants Would Lead to More Energy Savings 

Community solar often includes what is known as subscription-based community solar programs (SBCSPs), where a household “rents” solar panels and uses solar energy without the associated conditions and costs of installing solar panels, operating them, or owning them. These conditions of using solar energy typically would not qualify a low-income household to use LIHEAP funds for solar fuel. However, SBCSPs could provide a way for low-income households to be able to use LIHEAP benefit payments for solar fuel through subscription-based community solar programs because the household would not ultimately own the equipment or have to pay for its installation or maintenance costs. 

If LIHEAP participants are eligible for SBCSPs, then more people can participate in saving energy by using community AgriSolar, which ultimately assists in the identified goal of the Department of Energy (DOE) in reaching $1 billion in energy savings through community solar by 2025. 

Why merge AgriSolar with community solar? 

Community solar has been identified by DOE as a method of reaching energy savings goals by 2025, which includes saving $1 billion in energy costs. Merging AgriSolar with community solar developments would not only aid in significant energy savings but would also make future solar developments more likely to be approved—expanding energy savings even further. 

AgriSolar operations like the Cabriejo Ranch in Missouri has shown that AgriSolar provides a variety of energy saving methods as well as regenerating the land used by solar farms. The ranch uses Dorper sheep to manage the vegetation on solar operations, which drastically reduces the use of fuel-operated maintenance equipment typically used to manage vegetation. The sheep not only reduce these energy costs, but dramatically increase the health of the soil .  

The likelihood of a solar farm being approved for development is higher when AgriSolar is incorporated into the operations. This was seen in the Garnet Mesa project that was denied due to concerns about losing valuable farmland to the solar-farm development. The project was approved after changes were made to include 1,000 grazing sheep on the solar farm. 

The Possibilities of Merging AgriSolar and Community Solar   

 More participants saving more energy would be a win-win for reaching energy-and-cost savings goals.  

Not only do energy savings goals have a higher likelihood of being achieved through merging community solar and AgriSolar, but other benefits of using AgriSolar would also be made possible, such as regenerating soil health through grazing practices and supporting  job creations in local communities such as grazing management and farm operations jobs created in Missouri. These benefits of using AgriSolar in solar development increases the likelihood of future solar developments by proving the land can be effectively utilized while occupied by solar equipment and operations.  

1,000 Sheep Will Graze Colorado Solar Farm  

“Solar developer Guzman Energy achieved regulatory approval from the Delta County Board of Commissioners for a limited use permit to install and operate an 80 MW project on land in Southern Delta County, Colorado. The site that will house the array is currently irrigated and utilized for grazing, and will continue to be used in that manner, said Guzman Energy. About 1,000 sheep will remain on the site to manage vegetation and graze on native plants.” – PV Magazine 

Delaware Solar Farm Grows Perennials  

“There’s nothing particularly remarkable about a farm growing common decorative flowers, but the Remelts aren’t growing them in the traditional way, which would be in a greenhouse or outdoors at a nursery. Instead, they’re raising mums in a row between two banks of solar panels—making agricultural use of idle land that so many farmers who have reserved acreage for lucrative solar farms might have written off as unusable. 

Parker explained how he and his father, when considering how to use the land occupied by the solar panels, settled on planting mums. They needed a crop that wouldn’t interfere with the operation of the panels, a qualification the mums met. As a bonus, the perennial flower also tends to be hardier when grown outdoors.” – Rochester City Newspaper 

Sheep Grazing New Solar Farm in New York 

“The solar array sits on 23 acres with a strict grass height limit. ‘The main goal here is we don’t want the grass or any vegetation growing above the panels blocking sunlight, basically a loss of power,’ said the farm’s Josh Pierce. He says it would take a lot of effort to cut and trim all that vegetation. ‘Underneath the panels— the grass also grows up there— that’s the challenge of getting a mower in.’ 

Their 75 sheep live at the solar farm from May until October. Their job is to graze the grass and weeds to make sure the solar panels are clear to soak in the sun. ‘A lot of this is great forage. It’s a mix of orchard grass and alfalfa, which is like candy for them,’ Josh explained.” – WCAX 

Delta County, Colorado, commissioners have given approval to the Garnet Mesa solar farm to proceed with developing a 475-acre, 80-megawatt solar farming facility that was previously rejected due to concerns about losing farmland. After developers modified their plan by added 1,000 sheep to occupy the farm, commissioners voted to grant the land-use permit, satisfied that concerns about losing farmland had been resolved due to the conversion to agrisolar.  

“All negative comments were addressed by the applicant except for use of other desert lands for a solar energy facility. Those in favor of bringing a solar energy system to Delta mentioned helping the environment, additional tax revenue for the city, cheaper rates for customers and having a local energy source as reasons to support the proposal,” according to the Delta County Independent

“Interior fencing will be added to facilitate safe containment for the sheep and to prevent overgrazing. Sheep will also be provided with watering sites and other facilities necessary for safety and well-being, according to project plans presented during an open house,” said the article. 

“The two commissioners opposing the plan said they were concerned about the loss of agricultural land in the county. Guzman Energy has revised its Garnet Mesa project to ‘specifically address the agricultural and irrigation concerns raised by the community and commissioners,’ Amy Messenger, a company spokeswoman, said in an email,” according to The Colorado Sun.  

Garnet Mesa is expected to produce enough power for 18,000 homes each year and to create an estimated 350 to 400 employment opportunities, including sheep and farm management. 

NCAT’s Energy Program Director Stacie Peterson takes us on the Follow the Sun Tour to their Minnesota stop at Connexus Energy Headquarters. The tour included a solar Farm to Table Sampler featuring solar grown food next to Connexus’ AgriSolar project.

The AgriSolar Clearinghouse is an NCAT project that is funded by the Department of Energy to form a community gathering , networking, and information hub regarding the colocation of solar energy production and agriculture.  The project will lead tours around the country to offer the public an opportunity to visit AgriSolar sites, talk with farmers, ranchers, landowners, and researchers about the projects, and network with the AgriSolar community. These tours showcase what is possible and help build the resources, network, and enthusiasm needed to create successful AgriSolar projects around the country.

Check out this awesome story from a recent AgriSolar event!

ASGA Board President Jonathan Barter and “The Grass Whisperer” Troy Bishopp joined us to talk with ASGA members about the principles of planned grazing and the specific issues one needs to know to do solar grazing. We had a lively discussion, with ASGA folks bringing up a number of practical questions about how to plan your grazing management (fencing, having retreat sites, rotations, and more) and the importance of having a grazing plan to fulfill contracts and keep operations profitable. The conversation also touched on grazing large-scale solar sites with larger herds, as well as regional variations.

We ended up running out of time, but Jonathan and Troy have promised to hold a round 2 of this Teatime soon. Keep a lookout for that one.

Michigan Agrisolar Farm Includes Cattle 

“Since farms use a significant amount of energy, generating electricity directly on the farm is appealing for those seeking to reduce expenses. Also, farming-friendly solar is possible where several farms have married on-farm solar with rotational grazing of livestock. While sheep have been the predominant livestock used in solar pastures, new approaches show the possibility of harvesting the sun and providing pasture for grass-fed cattle on the same site. 

Farming-friendly solar is made possible by engineering a system where the panels are raised upwards of eight feet off the ground, allowing cattle to move beneath. On hot summer days the cattle seek relief from the sun in the shade from the panels. Similarly structured to a carport, the elevated solar structure is designed to withstand rugged outdoor applications with a properly supported foundation to manage the higher wind pressure.” – Michigan Farm News 

Nebraska Pork Producers Benefit from Agrisolar  

“A Northeast Nebraska pork producer is using renewable energy to promote sustainable agriculture and offset energy consumption on his farm. 

Jason Kvols tells Brownfield he installed 300 solar panels on the top of his hog barns two years ago and an app tracks the impact on the environment. ‘It coverts it to pounds of carbon dioxide saved through this solar system.  Over the two years, it’s up to 432,000 pounds of CO2 that my system has saved in production from two years.’ 

He says he received a 26-percent tax credit on the project, and it has a 7- to-8-year payoff period.” – Brownfield 

Kunekune Pigs Found to be Ideal for Small Farms 

“Kunekune (pronounced “cooney cooney”) pigs are a good option for small farms and homesteads. The animals’ gentle nature, manageable size, and low input requirements beyond minimal rations and standard veterinary care like vaccinations and de-worming, make them a smart pick for those looking for an entry point into livestock production.” – Eco Farming Daily 

You can find a free Kunekune Pig Guide here, provided by Eco Farming Daily. 

Carolina Solar Services has an impressive solar grazing operation based in North Carolina with high performance standards for the industry.

For our July Teatime, Brock Phillips from Carolina Solar Services talked with us about how they run their solar grazing operations and handle sustainable vegetation management at solar arrays. Brock touched on how they manage livestock, optimizing sites for sheep, seed mixes, the ecological benefits of their grazing, and more.

About the Speaker:

Brock Phillips is the Director of Livestock Services for Carolina Solar Services (CSS), a utility-scale solar O&M company based in Durham, NC. He manages a portfolio of solar sites across the Piedmont region of North Carolina through the integration of rotational livestock grazing and conventional vegetation maintenance. He began solar grazing in 2014 and since 2018 has worked with CSS to develop livestock grazing as a low-impact, ecological solution to solar farm maintenance.

AgriSolar Clearinghouse partner Rob Davis has generously offered a full Solar Farm Lego set as a prize for the winner of the competition for best photo taken at one of the Follow the Sun tour field trips.

This set is priceless and can not be purchased.  If you support the idea of a real-life Lego set being commercially available, vote here: LEGO IDEAS – Solar Farm.  For a great background on the kit, see this NREL blog.

Please post your Follow the Sun photos to our forum here, or tag us on social media by using the hashtag #AgriSolar.

Solar Farm Lego Set. Photo: Rob Davis

The Follow the Sun Tour launched in Arizona, at Biosphere 2 and the Manzo Elementary agrivoltaic research site, and it was a great educational, inspirational, and networking event.  Next up, we will travel to Minnesota on August 4 to tour Enel North America’s Lake Pulaski agrisolar site, US Solar’s Big Lake agrisolar site, and Connexus Energy’s agrisolar site in Ramsey. We’ll end the day on a sweet note with an Enel-sponsored Solar Farm to Table™ event featuring foods grown or pollinated at agrisolar sites.  Get your free tickets here: Events – AgriSolar Clearinghouse.

The next week, we’ll travel to Massachusetts for a tour of the University of Massachusetts South Deerfield agrisolar research site and then  the Million Little Sunbeams solar and hay farm, capping off the day at Knowlton Farms. Get your free tickets here: Events – AgriSolar Clearinghouse

In September, we will join forces with Jack’s Solar Garden, Sprout City Farms, and our partners at NREL and University of Arizona to tour Jack’s Solar Garden during its annual Night on the Farm.  Stay tuned for details.

Over the next year, we’re planning more field trips to central California, Texas, Oregon, Virginia, Idaho, New York, and many more sites.  If you have a site you’d like to highlight with an AgriSolar Clearinghouse fieldtrip, we’d love to hear from you.  We’re looking forward to seeing you on the road!