Agrivoltaic Opportunities for Livestock Producers Interested in Solar Energy – Lancaster Farming

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Agrivoltaics — the dual use of land for solar energy and agriculture — is one of the newer systems available for landowners to maximize their property’s return on investment.

As the United States pushes to reach energy independence, there is significant focus on increasing renewable energy sources, including solar.

In 2019, Pennsylvania established a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80% of 2005 emissions by 2050. One of the strategies released to meet this goal was to focus on increasing the state’s production of solar energy.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection supported the creation of Pennsylvania’s Solar Future Plan, which has a goal of Pennsylvania producing 10% of its electricity through solar generation by 2030. There is still much to be done, but the state announced at the end of last year that it surpassed the production of 1 gigawatt of solar energy, with more projects underway.

There are many types of agricultural production systems that are considered agrivoltaics, but the production of both energy and agriculture at the same time on the same piece of land is a key discernment.

For example, if you have solar panels installed on your barn or outbuildings and your animals are grazing in pastures around that building, it’s not considered to be true agrivoltaics. If you’re grazing livestock between installed panels that are generating electricity, that is a complete agrivoltaics system.

There are two types of agrivoltaic systems. The first is an elevated system, in which the panels are lifted to around 6 feet off the ground so that ag production occurs underneath the panels. The second is an inter-row system, which has panels installed closer to the ground with ag production happening between the panels.

Most livestock producers would opt for grazing their livestock among the panels in a solar grazing operation.

Another opportunity for producers to work with solar operations is to grow crops such as hay and small grains between the panels.

Grazing can be done in either system. There are pros and cons to each, especially when choosing a livestock species.

If you’re interested in running cattle, then you would be working with an elevated system to make sure that panels are high enough off the ground that cattle don’t rub or defecate on the panels, and far enough apart to move the cattle through the system or use equipment to mow if necessary. The supports for the system would also have to be constructed to ensure that when cattle rub on the beams holding the panels, they don’t push the array over. This can lead to added installation expense and reduced solar energy production per acre.

Typical agrivoltaics systems produce about 50% of the amount of energy of solar farming without agriculture production simply because of the spacing required between the panels reducing the number per acre.

Another concern is that panel installation height may be restricted, depending on local regulatory codes.

Agrivoltaics, also referred to as solar grazing, with sheep is a successful system. Sheep are preferable to other small ruminants, like goats, because sheep don’t try to jump and climb on the panels. Therefore, sheep can be utilized in both elevated and inter-row systems. Sheep are also grazers and can utilize a greater amount of forage on the ground, unlike goats that are natural browsers, eating mainly brushy or shrubby plant matter off the ground. Sheep have also been found to be a more cost-effective solution to manage the land than chemical and mechanical means. There may be a small benefit of the elevated system in that the solar panels can be used as shade and weather protection for the sheep.

Any breed or stage of sheep production can be utilized in an agrivoltaics system. Most producers, especially those in contract with the solar company leasing the land, will graze open ewes, stocker lambs, and ewes with lambs that are at least a few weeks old. Lambing out in these operations without a lambing barn or shelter can be more challenging, thus the emphasis on lambs of at least a few weeks of age.

Forage species selection is also something that will need to be considered when designing agrivoltaic systems. Regardless of how the solar panels are arranged, there will be some areas that are more shaded than others. Choosing a pasture mix that will benefit your livestock and will tolerate some shade is a must. Some examples of mixes specific for solar grazing are orchardgrass, perennial ryegrass, Kentucky blue grass, fescue, crimson clover and birds foot trefoil. For small grain crop production, wheat has been used in some systems with success, but other cash crops such as soybeans and corn are being tested in these systems throughout the country.

As more solar operations are constructed, the opportunity for farmers to either lease the land to a solar company or contract graze with another one will become more common. There is still a lot of growth and research to be done in Pennsylvania on the opportunities that may arise for livestock producers.

If you find yourself in a contract grazing situation with solar panels, maintaining your first right of refusal for vegetative management is highly recommended, especially when grazing livestock. For example, you wouldn’t want someone using an herbicide or pesticide where the animals have direct access to fresh applications. In addition, you may wish to make clear statements of water usage, fencing and permission to move or work around the livestock.

Always seek legal counsel when negotiating a contract for grazing or leasing land. For more information, the Penn State Extension energy team has multiple resources on its website.

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