Janna Greir, a shepherd in Alberta, Canada, knows solar farms can sometimes be controversial. In rural areas, large arrays take over hundreds of acres of former agricultural land. That can be a tough loss for local farmers, especially ones with links to the land going back generations.
But Greir, a farmer herself who is also passionate about green energy and sustainability, wanted to demonstrate that land used for solar panels can still be used for agricultural purposes. So when an Edmonton-based Capital Power installed about 240 acres of solar panels on a plot about 10 minutes from Greir’s farm outside of Strathmore, she saw an opportunity to introduce solar grazing to the region.
Solar grazing is exactly what it sounds like. Farm animals, especially sheep, graze the land as the solar panels soak up the sun. It saves the company operating the solar array money by not needing to mow the grass—also saving the emissions generated with lawn mowing equipment which can be surprisingly substantial— and keeps the land in agricultural use. It’s also good for farmers who can make additional income through the contracts to graze the solar land. Plus, if the grazing is managed by moving the sheep between grids of land to prevent overgrazing, it can sequester up to 80 percent more carbon in the soil, which is an even bigger win for the environment.
Sheep are the preferred animal for solar grazing, according to the American Solar Grazing Association, because the only interest they take in the solar panels is as shade. When asked why sheep, Greir put it succinctly. “Cows are curious. 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 craze in and around the panels and they don’t damage them at all.” Plus, sheep are great grazers, eating pretty much any weed and trampling whatever they don’t eat, reducing fire risk.
When spring blossoms in Alberta, Greir will truck about 50 to 100 sheep over to the solar land. If all goes well, they’ll add 50 to 100 sheep more at a time, hoping to get up to 600 if all goes well. Then, they’ll bring the sheep back to the farm for the winter.
The solar array will generate 40.5 mw of power, enough for around 12,000 homes. And with the land also acting as a summer home for hundreds of sheep, Greir views it as “an exciting opportunity…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. The world needs more sheep.”