Landscape to Lambscape: How Sheep are Reshaping Solar Farm Maintenance
Posted on 8/30/2023
When you think about solar farm maintenance, sheep may be the last workers you think of hiring. But, they come with a host of benefits. Solar installations require extensive maintenance efforts to control vegetation and sheep grazing provides a new cost-effective solution. This innovative practice allows solar farms to maintain ground cover, control vegetation, reduce fire risk, and lower O&M expenditures.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates solar panels will cover approximately 3 million acres of land in the US by 2030 and 6 million acres by 2050. As solar energy developers expand their operations many want to develop farmland, competing with farmers who also want to use the land to bring in revenue.
Agrivoltaics – the dual use of land for agriculture and photovoltaic panels – is becoming increasingly popular in North America. Sheep have proven to be the best grazing animals for the job. Cattle are too large to fit under typical solar systems and can damage equipment due to their size, curiosity, and desire to scratch their bodies on equipment. While solar arrays can be constructed on pedestals to allow cattle to graze underneath the system, designing an entire solar installation around cattle is not practical. Goats have been considered as another option as they can graze under all parts of solar installations, however, they are also curious animals that tend to climb and munch on equipment, damaging the solar panels causing more harm than good.
Sheep, on the other hand, have proven to successfully maintain vegetation without damaging equipment. Sheep can easily navigate under solar panels to graze on all parts of the land area and they are complete grazers, meaning they will consume any type of vegetation that grows near panels.
Maintaining vegetation at solar energy sites poses a significant expense for energy companies and sheep have proven to be a cost-effective solution when compared to the traditional approach of manual labor, machinery, and herbicides. According to the American Solar Grazing Association, the cost of grazing livestock is 30% less than man-powered landscape maintenance, some companies have even saved more. Prices range from $250-750 per acre, per year, depending on the region, topography, and herd availability. For solar sites located on rough terrain, sheep can prove extremely useful. In Massachusetts, solar developer Nexamp achieved 38% cost savings on a ledge site which would have been very difficult to hand-maintain. The company averages a cost savings of 19% across all sites that have switched to grazing.
Another company, Tampa Electric, has achieved an astonishing 75% cost savings. The company took the liberty of adding quality fences, predator barriers, wells to provide water for the herd, and specific seed mixes to their solar sites at a large upfront cost. However, these additions helped the livestock contractor save money, in turn allowing the energy company to hire the contractor at a lower rate and achieve significant savings.
Several other companies have reported that in addition to the financial benefits they are also seeing a decreased fire risk, a decrease in damage to panels caused by machinery and projectiles, and a reduced carbon footprint. Solar farm maintenance and operation oversight has also improved as farmers frequently check on their herds and can report panel damage and other issues to solar companies. There are a whole host of benefits to livestock grazing and as the solar industry continues to expand agrivoltaics just might catch on.
Sources linked within article.
Pictures courtesy: https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2023-solar-grazing-sheep/
Midweek with Maintenance World
Looking for a midweek break? Keep up with the latest news brought to you every Wednesday by the Maintenance World crew.