How solar sheep keep American panels out of the shade

Sheep graze alongside solar panels in Hammond, Minnesota.

The “solar grazing” around the panels provides a lifeline for the US livestock sector as clean energy expands.

Stung by high fuel costs and a labor shortage, some clean energy companies are turning to an unlikely ally – herds of sheep – to keep their solar panels out of the shadows.

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The nascent practice, known as solar grazing, is so far used on only a tiny fraction of the vast arrays of panels that increasingly dot rural America. But with significant financial benefits for both the renewable energy industry and the struggling sheep sector, more solar sites in the United States are expected to start trading lawn mowers for lambs.

Solar panels on farmland in Hammond, Minnesota.
The U.S. solar market is on track to more than double over the next five years as the historic Cut Inflation Act boosts domestic manufacturing.

The U.S. solar industry is growing rapidly: The country is set to break solar construction records this year by adding more than 32 gigawatts of capacity, according to the BloombergNEF outlook. That’s enough to power over 25 million homes. At the same time, there are fears that there will not be enough cropland to feed a growing world population, especially if the area is covered by buildings, roads or photovoltaic installations.

The nonprofit American Farmland Trust estimates that the United States will lose an additional 18.4 million acres of farmland – an area close to the size of South Carolina – between 2016 and 2040 if development trends current ones continue. “Agrivoltaics”, or the dual use of land for solar energy and agriculture, is a way for both industries to use the same land.

The American Solar Grazing Association, founded in 2018, estimates that about 5,000 sheep currently tend American solar sites. The practice is also used in parts of Canada, the UK, France, Japan, Australia and South America, he said.

In some cases, sheep are better suited to maneuver around solar panels than conventional mowers and help reduce carbon emissions.

For solar companies, the merger brings potential cost savings and a reduced carbon footprint. Standard Solar, a Brookfield Renewable business that has more than 350 megawatts of solar power in the United States, uses grazing in the Midwest as well as some of its rockiest sites in New England, where it’s difficult to operate traditional landscaping tools.

“You have to cut the grass because it’s a fire hazard,” said Jay Smith, director of asset management at Standard Solar. “Sheep support biodiversity better than a conventional mower.”

Sheep are better guards than cows — which are sometimes too big to walk under panels and like to scratch on posts, Standard Solar said. They are also better than goats, which sometimes climb structures and gnaw wires. Even the Cincinnati Zoo is turning to sheep grazing for vegetation management around solar panels on some of its land.

The practice also gives sheep farmers a lifeline, introducing a new source of income after a decades-long decline for the U.S. lamb industry. The number of sheep slaughtered in the United States has averaged more than 2 million head in recent years, up from more than 9 million in the early 1970s, according to Department of Agriculture data. Spikes in demand for lamb chops during Jewish and Islamic holidays aren’t enough to make sheep farmers profitable on meat alone, said Altin Kalo, chief economist at Steiner Consulting Group.

Arlo Hark and Josephine Trople take a portrait in front of the solar panels on their farm.

Arlo Hark and Josie Trople founded Cannon Valley Graziers in 2018.

Lamb consumption in the United States averaged about 1.3 pounds per person in 2022, up from more than 4 pounds per person in 1960, according to USDA data. While demand has seen an uptick during the pandemic, as more adventurous home cooks have turned to new types of protein, it’s still a far cry from eating other meats like beef or chicken. Cheaper lamb imported from Australia and New Zealand has long pressured American sheep farmers. In 2020, the second-largest lamb processing plant in the United States, Mountain States Rosen in Greeley, Colorado, filed for bankruptcy; the world’s largest meat company, JBS SA, bought the plant at auction and converted it into a value-added meat plant.

“Unfortunately, lamb is a very seasonal product from a retail perspective,” Kalo said. “It creates a very difficult environment if you’re a producer.”

Josie Trople makes socks and hats from the sheared fibers of solar sheep.

For Josie Trople, a Minnesota shepherd, working with solar companies is a way to stay in the livestock business, where producers have notoriously thin profit margins. Trople, 27, who operates Cannon Valley Graziers with her husband, Arlo Hark, also makes hats and socks from sheared fiber from grazing sheep. She calls it “solar wool”, and it now accounts for around a fifth of their income – or more. Some solar farmers even hope to eventually generate and sell carbon credits, adding another source of income.

“Our smallest income comes from our meat sales,” said Trople, whose family business owns more than 100 Rambouillet sheep and oversees hundreds more. “If we want to keep doing this work, how are we going to be relevant?”

Arlo Hark walks past the sheep grazing under the solar panels on his farm.

The practice of “solar grazing” benefits sheep farmers with new income opportunities as lamb consumption in the United States declines.

Visual media produced in partnership with Outrider Foundation.

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