Electric Sheep: How solar companies are collaborating with farmers

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(Pictures and Video: Lindsay France, Cornell University)

ELMIRA, NY (WETM) – One of the biggest concerns the solar industry comes across is the loss of agricultural land. The two industries are collaborating to create this unlikely pair: sheep and solar panels.

Sheep can graze at the solar sites, eating the grass, and in turn maintaining the land; creating a symbiotic relationship between the sheep and the solar panels. The American Solar Grazing Association connects solar companies with shepherds, where the companies basically pay the farmers to use the land.

“A solar company can hire a farmer grazer, rather than hiring a big operations maintenance company,” said Lexie Hain, co-founder of the American Solar Grazing Association.

It’s a win-win situation: solar companies don’t have to use and pay for fossil fuels to maintain the land, and shepherds get access to the land and get paid to graze their sheep.

Knowing that they have to manage the vegetation to prevent shading [over the solar panels]… to go in with mowers using fossil fuels and stuff to the bed is ironic,” said Todd Schmit, Cornell associate professor of agricultural economics. “I think there’s a real opportunity for [farmers] that are faced with land constraints… to have access to a land base or feeding your sheep, and getting paid to do it.”

Cornell is partnering with these farmers and solar companies to dive deeper into the possible business opportunities of this collaboration. Schmit is the researcher leading the three-year project, with $500,000, funded by Cornell and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We’ll see through the course of this project, whether there’s farmer interest in collaborative marketing, developing a branded product for sheep raised under solar rays…even investment in their processing facilities,” said Schmit. “The point is, it’s a farmer-driven business model.”

New York currently has a goal of 70% renewable energy by 2030. This collaboration could be the catalyst for more development, and further help the state reach those goals.

“I think this, this project is going to be instrumental in helping me ensure that there is agricultural use of those solar sites,” said Haim.

The future could even possibly incorporate other livestock sharing the land with solar panels.

“They were thinking even beyond sheep, pasture-raised chickens, or pollinators, or… beehives,” said Schmit.

Who knows, the next slogan could be ‘Poultry & Panels’!

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