How Agriculture and Renewable Energy Can Work Together: The Case for Sheep and Solar Panels

Land size has always been a crucial factor in agriculture. As New York State is pushing to reach the 70% renewable energy goal by 2030, the continued growing number of renewable energy industries could occupy up to 129,600 acres of land. However, farmland will be within that acreage, as farms can offer unique combinations of land use in partnership with the energy industry.

One key area of collaboration is between grazing livestock and solar arrays. Vegetation around solar arrays requires constant maintenance to not interfere with the functionality, while sheep have been found to enjoy resting under the solar arrays. This combination has inspired a new form of partnership between agriculture and renewable energy. 

The Solar Grazing Project, launched by a transdisciplinary team at Cornell, is trying to demonstrate  the potential of co-locating solar arrays on farmland that will benefit both solar energy developers and agriculture industries in an environmentally friendly way. 

Postdoctoral research fellow Niko Kochendoerfer and Mike Thonney, late professor and director of graduate studies in Cornell CALS Department of Animal Science, started this research in 2019 to test the optimal sheep grazing management system around ground-mounted solar arrays to avoid panel shading at the Cascadilla Community Solar Farm. With different sheep numbers per acre, they tried to determine a good balance between ideal vegetation management and the optimized animal welfare and production, pollinator habitat, and soil carbon accrual. 

As for farmers, the Solar Grazing system is an excellent opportunity to start a new side industry. Half of the lamb in the U.S. is currently imported from New Zealand and Australia. However, as a 2021 Cornell report projects that the increased number of grazed solar arrays will significantly facilitate the development of the New York sheep industry. 

In turn, the renewable energy industry can manage the vegetation around solar arrays effectively with the appropriate stocking densities of grazing sheep, as determined by Kochendoerfer.

This Solar Grazing System can also benefit sustainable development for the environment, as it can reduce or even replace the usage of fossil-fuel-based mowing machines. In addition, several pieces of evidence from animal science, soil carbon sequestration, vegetation biodiversity, and pollinator habitats also indicated that this system could potentially benefit the ecosystem holistically. 

“Sheep flocks also benefit from the shade provided by the panels in solar arrays, so animal welfare, flock health and productivity are high,” Kochendoerfer told CALS News. 

Antonio DiTommaso, professor of weed science and chair of the Soil and Crop Sciences Section in the School of Integrative Plant Science explained to CALS News that, “despite two years of sheep grazing, interestingly, several locally adapted plant species that were not present at the start of the project are now found on the site.” 

Motivated by the promising results from the past two years of practice, entomologist Scott McArt, assistant professor of pollinator health, suggested the intermediate level of grazing could also provide more floral resources, increasing the number of bees. 

To figure out the long-term impact, the Cornell research team is still looking for decade-level research to fulfill more details of this system, such as the relationship between animal husbandry and soil carbon. Nevertheless, the success of this system in New York state could become a great inspiration for the popularity of renewable energy development nowadays and possibly be adopted nationwide. 

Cornell Cooperative Extension Community and Energy Work Team, which works closely with the research program, will also organize workshops and presentations at extension events that help farmers communicate and support them in adapting to the changing market and industries. 

Read more about the Solar Grazing Projects at CALS News.

Yidi Wang

Yidi is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences majoring in Psychology. She is interested in exploring how different subjects can serve as an artistic method and combine with psychology to contribute to the variety of therapeutic approaches. Her family has been participating in the local collaborated farms at Schenectady for many years. During the pandemic, she noticed that the farm work not only served as a way of planting and harvesting but also brought residents a sense of achievement and became a great way of relaxation and reducing the pressure and loneliness due to isolation. As an Army Veteran, she also hopes to support the Veteran group’s mental health by providing opportunities for them to use their agricultural skills from the military.
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