A trial of sheep grazing under solar panels in New South Wales could lead to further research, after local ranchers claimed panel-covered pastures better supported feed supply during drought and improved quality wool from their flocks.
“Local ranchers called the installation a ‘total win-win,’ with the sheep helping to keep grass and weeds down so they don’t obscure the signs,” ABC News reports.
Yarn brokers and breeders point to several improvements panels can provide. In addition to providing shade for sheep, grass and ground during the drought, the panels condensed evaporated water which then fell back to the ground. Their findings match results from previous research in Oregon that found solar panels can increase yields of several pasture grass species by 328 percent, dramatically improving water efficiency.
The increased soil moisture not only helped maintain grass and other forage growth, but also reduced the amount of airborne dust that can contaminate wool, says PV Magazine. .
“It’s actually quite amazing. Some of the sheep are fantastic. They are growing exponentially and the wool cuts are among the richest 5% in the district,” said Graeme Ostini, a wool broker who grazes merino at a solar farm near Parkes.
While Ostini says his sheep were stocked slightly less than the district average – meaning there were fewer sheep per unit of land – Dubbo farmer and rancher Tom Warren said his rate of loading was slightly above average, and he noticed an increase in wool quality but not quantity. He also said he increased his income by renting his land to the solar farm and grazing his sheep there.
Madeline Taylor, a researcher in energy policy and landowners’ rights, said the link between solar panels and agriculture needs to be studied further and more pilot projects need to be funded.
“We are starting to have a very good database of studies showing how co-location of agriculture and photovoltaics can be done successfully,” she said. “We have seen that it works very well for grazing. Now, believe it or not, cultivation can also work very well with solar energy. »
But the grazing approach is not without its skeptics. Some landowners in the area fear that the coexistence of solar farms and agriculture could have adverse effects on dryland salinity, and farmers near Wagga Wagga solar farms have raised concerns that that runoff from the panels could raise an already high water table, reports ABC News.
Citing concerns the approach has been ‘oversold’, Independent Wagga Wagga MP Joe McGirr is calling for a moratorium on solar farm developments until the results of a review are ordered by NSW Energy Minister Matt Kean to “review all existing opportunities for improvement”. frameworks, such as the coexistence of solar and wind power with agriculture” – has been completed.
“We have the developments going on,” and “the discussion and the research will come later,” McGirr said. “My concern is that it will be too late, the damage will be done.”