Solar Grazing Supports Solar Competitiveness, Sustainability
STORY INLINE POST
Innovation has always been the engine for human progress and economic growth. When innovative solutions that are good for business can also be used to promote sustainable practices and make a positive impact on communities, it deserves our attention. In the solar industry, we have a new solution to boost the competitiveness of solar projects that is as ancient as the herding tribes in Africa. It is called ovis aries, the scientific name for the common sheep.
Solar grazing, the use of livestock to maintain vegetation under solar panels, is just one practice under the larger umbrella of agrivoltaics, where developers are combining agricultural and renewable energy production on the same piece of land. Today, solar developers are not counting sheep to fall asleep, we’re counting sheep to make it big!
The long-term competitiveness of a solar project is defined by the price of energy generated and its alignment with return-on-investment projections. The more energy produced at a lower cost the more competitive the project is. There are three main factors that define how competitive a project is: the cost of building it (CAPEX), the cost of operating it (OPEX) and the energy yield.
The OPEX cost is relevant because it is over the life of the project, and it has a direct impact on the energy production of the project in the long term. One of the relevant cost components of the OPEX is vegetation control, which in many cases is significant. The most common practice for vegetation control is the use of manually operated equipment that runs on fossil fuels. This practice is very labor intensive, it increases the percentage of damaged equipment over time, increases the potential for accidents, and increases the carbon footprint of the plant.
For solar developers, working with local farmers to use solar grazing as a management tool can reduce operations and maintenance costs significantly. Managing solar site vegetation with sheep grazing is estimated to require two and half times less labor, making it less expensive than traditional landscaping, according to a 2018 Cornell University study. Meanwhile, solar grazing provides livestock owners with additional pasture opportunities and the chance to be paid for a valuable service, increasing income to their business and adding to the economy of the rural communities. It is a win-win partnership.
Among the livestock options for grazing, sheep are the winners. Sheep have no teeth in the front part of the upper jaw, which consists of a dense, hard, fibrous pad. So, they nibble on grass rather than pull it out by the roots. They eat about 3% of their body weight each day, walk about 5km in a day as they graze, and produce about 4 pounds of manure each day. So, what does this mean, you ask? It means a lot.
The use of sheep for vegetation control is much less intrusive than the use of manually powered machines, it is not labor intensive, reduces the risk of accidents and damaged equipment, reduces the carbon footprint of the project, and provides better results. In addition, as sheep walk endlessly in their nutritional pursuit, they aerate the soil with their hooves and fertilize it at the same time. This allows for a low grass or weed coverage to prevail, reducing erosion, reducing water runoff, and reducing dust. And, if managed properly, it is less expensive.
The adoption of sheep for vegetation control has even more value when it comes to the value our projects bring to the agricultural legacy in various communities. We have learned it is not only about economics but also about the honor of leveraging agricultural knowledge from generations of farmers in these communities. When you are welcomed to a new community and you return that warm welcome with the goal to collaborate and preserve their local resources, the result is outstanding success. Developers and farmers must work together to develop contracts that serve the needs of both parties to advance co-locating utility-scale solar with grazing activities.
Next Steps: Let’s Keep Counting Sheep
While the use of solar sites for sheep grazing is still in its infancy, at BayWa r.e., we already have flocks of sheep grazing contentedly under and around glass panels. And we are working hard to define the best way to implement solar grazing across various projects and have even a bigger impact in the communities where we operate.
Including solar grazing as a goal in the beginning stages of project planning allows developers to tailor sites for optimal grazing management. Solar grazing is most successful when deployed as part of a strategic, rotational grazing plan. As we have a keen eye on innovative solutions to increase the penetration of solar energy worldwide, it is very refreshing to work with farmers in our common pursuit of preserving our local resources while at the same time helping our projects be more competitive and bringing economic progress to the community.