The world needs more sheep, says Janna Greir of Whispering Cedars Ranch, which is located just east of Strathmore, Alberta. That’s in part because it turns out that sheep are perfectly suited to keep the grass trimmed at solar farms like Capital Power’s 41 megawatt facility located on 320 acres leased from the Town of Strathmore.
“Cows are curious,” she says. “They get itchy. They like to rub on things. Goats like to climb and jump on things. They like to chew the wires. But sheep like to graze in and around the panels and they don’t damage them at all.” And sheep eat pretty much any weed and trampling whatever they don’t eat, reducing fire risk and providing sustainable land management.
Telus is buying the power from the facility – its fourth power purchase agreement in Alberta – and aims to achieve 100% net carbon neutrality by 2030. This is the first Canadian project for Capital Power, which owns approximately 6,600 MW of power generation capacity at 26 facilities across North America, and is aiming for net carbon neutrality by 2050.
When the Greirs, who have been raising sheep for a decade, learned about the project, they suggested using their sheep to graze at the solar farm, and Capital Power was enthusiastic.“Solar has been historically looked at as lost land, but for us it is an opportunity as first-generation farmers to access this land to produce food and fibre, while also supporting renewable energy,” Janna says.
They will truck about 50 to 100 sheep over to the solar array this spring. If all goes well, they’ll add 50 to 100 sheep more at a time, hoping to get up to 600. “I think we’re going to see a lot more solar popping up across the globe and the fact we can still put that agriculture to use and use our wooly friends to do it is a win-win for the solar industry, farmers, and the environment,” Janna says.
The grazing sheep eliminate the need for gas-powered mowers and trimmers, while offering local farmers additional land for their animals to graze, grow and thrive. The sheep will be onsite in the warmer months and return home for the winter. The Greirs will visit the site daily, and the site will also be monitored by video surveillance 24/7.
“Thanks to our competitive energy-only market, Alberta is leading Canada for new renewable energy and the completion of Capital Power’s Strathmore Solar facility is another strong step in that direction,” says Dale Nally, the Alberta government’s associate minister of natural gas and electricity. “Capital Power is leading by example, partnering with Whispering Cedars Ranch and demonstrating how renewable energy and traditional industry can work together for a more sustainable energy future.”
It is a discovery that is increasingly being made around the world. Sheep are grazing on solar farms in Canada, Australia, and in the US, in Texas, New Jersey, New York, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Maine and Oregon.
Julie Bishop, one of the pioneers, had begun raising sheep on a small farm in Newfield, New Jersey, but didn’t have a lot of pasture land. One day, driving to visit her mother, she passed a 15-acre solar installation and thought it would be a good place for her sheep..
“It’s all fenced in, and I’m sure they’re paying somebody to mow the grass.” She figured sheep could do that job more easily. “They’re just born to weed-whack,” she says. “Let sheep do what they’re good at, let people do something that’s, you know, not so back-breaking.” Now she’s getting paid to graze her sheep there. “There’s plenty of grass and clover for the sheep.All kinds of critters live in here. Mice and moles and voles,” Bishop says. “It’s food for butterflies and other pollinators.”
Grazing sheep at solar installations is part of a growing movement known as agrivoltaics – using land covered by solar panels for agricultural uses. Using the same area of land for both solar power and agriculture has mushroomed from about five megawatts (MW) in 2012 to approximately 2,900 MW in 2020.
A recent Oregon State University (OSU) study estimates that converting just 1% of American farmland to agrivoltaics could meet the US national renewable energy targets, save water, and create a sustainable long-term food system. It found that 20% of US total electricity generation can be met with agrivoltaic systems, and that widescale installation of agrivoltaic systems can cut CO2 emissions equal to removing 71,000 cars from the road annually while creating over 100,000 jobs in rural communities.
For the sheep, grazing under solar panels is healthy. Sheep living among rows of solar panels spend more time grazing, benefit from more nutritious food, rest more and seem to experience less heat stress, compared with nearby sheep in empty fields, according to researcher Emma Kampherbeek.
The study involved 80 ewes, most pregnant, living on 7.5 hectares of pasture on the central California coast. The site is owned by California Polytechnic State University and hosts 4.5 megawatts of solar photovoltaic power produced from panels that automatically face the sun.
Forty ewes were placed in areas with a 60% coverage of solar panels, and the other half in areas without panels, in late autumn and winter. The first group spent more than 70% of their time under the panels and grazed eight per cent more than those on land without solar panels. “They really liked being under the solar panels,” says Kampherbeek, adding that she herself preferred being in the shade under the panels. Heat stress is a common problem for sheep.
In Australia, according to an initial ABC report, sheep grazing under panels have produced better wool and more of it during the four years since solar sites were installed at farms in New South Wales. Farmers said the sheep helped keep grass and weeds down so panels didn’t lose their efficiency, while the panels kept the soil from drying out and provided shade.
Farmer and grazier Tom Warren, who leases some parts of his land to a solar farm on which about 250 Merino ewes and wethers graze among solar panels, said leasing his land to the solar farm and grazing his sheep there increased his income, and the land’s carrying capacity also increased by roughly 25%. Moreover, his herd could graze almost all through the drought years, since water condensing on the solar panels in the mornings trickled down to the soil and kept some of the pastures green.
A sustainable energy match made in heaven. Strathmore Now, Mar. 28, 2022
Strathmore Solar begins commercial operations. Capital Power, Mar. 23, 2022
How 600 Sheep Will Help Maintain a Solar Array. Vice, Mar. 28, 2022
Agriculture: The Agrivoltaic Approach – With Video. Clean Technica, Feb. 8, 2022
How To Have Your Solar Farm And Keep Your Regular Farm, Too. NPR, Oct. 9, 2020
Woolly lawnmowers: The huge solar farm that hosts 2,000 sheep. Renew Economy, Feb. 28,2023
Cover image: Whispering Cedars Ranch; photo of Janna Greier also from the website.