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On a 120-acre farm in Biscoe, North Carolina, near the edge of the Uwharrie National Forest, a flock of hair sheep takes shelter from the summer sun beneath a row of solar panels.
Grazing on grasses, clover, and flowering weeds, a chorus of lamb bleats urgently between bites. Ewes nudge their young and blink dispassionately at onlookers.
Raised without antibiotics or growth hormones, ultimately the disheveled-looking creatures – their fur characteristically patchy – will end up at a Charlotte farm-to-table restaurant 70 miles away, perhaps in the form of salami or fennel and garlic spiced burgers.
For now, they provide a valuable service to O2 emc – the Cornelius-based company that owns this solar installation – by preventing weeds that could block sunlight and decrease the panels’ efficiency.
“What we’re trying to do is put agriculture and solar right next to each other,” says Brock Phillips of Sun-Raised Farms, who owns and manages the sheep. “It can be quite symbiotic if implemented correctly.”
The numbers ‘do speak for themselves’
Montgomery Solar is part of a growing trend in North Carolina. A flock of 350 sheep, rather than lawn mowers, maintain the grounds beneath hundreds of rows of panels, enough to supply electricity for over 2,000 homes.
In a report out this month examining the relationship between solar development and agriculture, experts says the 20-megawatt solar project is a positive example.
“The growth of solar farms represents a huge opportunity for the North Carolina sheep industry,” says the study from the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center, a public service of North Carolina State University.
Building on an April analysis from the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association and the state’s agricultural agency, the latest study finds that less than a third of 1 percent of North Carolina’s 4.75 million acres of cropland now houses solar panels – belying criticisms that large-scale solar arrays are threatening the state’s traditional farms.
“You can’t make up the numbers,” said the Sustainable Energy Association’s Robin Aldina, lead author of the April report. “They do speak for themselves.”
With a new law adopted this summer expected to more than double the state’s solar capacity – mostly in the form of utility-scale installations – the numbers will undoubtedly increase.
But analysts say even if large solar developments accounted for more than a quarter of the state’s electricity supply – a fraction they say is probably unrealistically high – only about 2.2 percent of cropland would be impacted.
And while researchers acknowledge solar could cause a “small but manageable impact” on agricultural productivity, many contend the promise of the sheep-solar symbiosis and other benefits outweigh those downsides.
“Despite what some folks will lead you to believe, solar and agriculture are not at odds,” said Aldina. “They’re not competing, but complementary industries.”
A laboratory for solar/sheep farming
Sun-Raised Farms is a network of 17 farmers engaged in a mutually-beneficial relationship with solar developers: the shepherds get pasture for their animals to graze; the solar companies maintain the lawns beneath their panels through natural means.
The company has experimented with other ruminants. But horses tend to be picky eaters. Cows are too tall, and require too much space. Goats like to climb on the panels, eat wires, and otherwise distract from the mission. “Goats do everything you don’t want them to do,” Phillips says.
Thus, Sun-Raised is focused for now on sheep, and Montgomery Solar serves as its laboratory. Here, under the leadership of Phillips, an onsite farm manager and other staff develop best practices that can be shared with others.
“If you just throw sheep out there, it’s not going to work,” says Phillips, who grew up in Kansas and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
One innovation: movable electric fences that allow solar technicians to cordon sheep into one area while they perform maintenance in another.
The company works to help shepherds at the back end as well as the front, by attracting buyers for the meat raised on solar farms.
“We’ve been producing a lamb salami, all North Carolina pasture-raised, and it’s taken off already with about 10 restaurants in the Charlotte area,” says Sun-Raised’s Brooks Mixon, who focuses on developing markets. “We’re approaching others as we speak.”
North Carolina sheep farming has grown over the last decade, from 21,000 to 30,000 animals at the end of last year. Sun-Raised Farms has played at least some role in that boost: 28 of the state’s large-scale solar installations are maintained by about 4000 sheep in the company’s network.
Phillips also thinks raising sheep on farms demonstrates the solar industry’s support for agriculture in a way hard data may not.
“So much of life is perception, and even with numbers and facts, it’s hard for people to really believe it until they see it,” he says. “Getting sheep on site, that’s a commitment people believe.”
Land to ‘carry on to our grandchildren’
While Sun-Raised shepherds aren’t the only ones providing maintenance for solar developers, far from all of the state’s 341 large solar projects – an estimated 79 percent of which are on cropland – have the double benefit of sheep.
But many still say solar is good for farmers, providing an economic boost, restoring wildlife habitat, and helping to ensure land that’s been in the family for generations doesn’t get sold to development.
All were factors when Dawson Singletary – who still raises cattle, peanuts and other crops in eastern North Carolina – decided to lease 34 acres of his land to Strata Solar, the Chapel Hill-based developer.
“If this thing ties up the land for 35 years, that’s going to bypass our children, where they can’t sell this land,” he said. “That’s going to carry on to our grandchildren.”
Because the company rents extra land to create a buffer between the panels and nearby forest, Singletary grows soybeans, sorghum and peas right up to the fence around the solar array – to the benefit of wildlife. “We got the quail population and the rabbit population up,” the 67-year-old farmer said, with a note of pride.
Singletary can’t reveal exactly how much Strata pays him, having signed a non-disclosure agreement with the company. But he says it’s between $700 and $1100 an acre per year, a fixed amount many times more than what corn or beans would yield, and about what peanuts would earn only in the best of times. “It compares to a pretty good cash crop,” he said. “It’s a good deal on that.”
Stories like this spread easily – and solar panels on the side of the road in rural North Carolina tell stories of their own.
“We know farmers see an economic benefit,” said Aldina with the Sustainable Energy Association. “I get calls at least monthly from farmers who want us to hook them up with a developer.”
‘Farming the sun is legitimate’
Singletary acknowledges his solar panels are on quality land – a frequent complaint of solar critics. “Basically, these things should have been put in places, if possible, where it was only poor corn and bean land,” he said. “That’s where they all really should have been.”
But the Bladen County farmer recognized the plot was chosen for its proximity to a power substation, and ultimately agreed to cede his prime peanut-growing land to solar because of its benefits. Experts say that’s a prerogative he and other farmers should keep.
“The landowners are the ones who have the right to the land,” said Aldina. “We just advise them to do what’s best for them – and for the land.”
Clean Energy Technology Center analysts anticipate that at the end of the first solar panels’ useful life, most developers and farmers will agree to retrofit installations with new panels.
If not, they say cropland can fairly easily return to its original use, “albeit with a potential for some short-term reduction in productivity due to loss of topsoil, compaction, change in pH, and change in available nutrients.”
For Helen Livingston, who with her brother leases 44 of the 300 acres they own in Robeson County for solar panels, facilitating renewable energy is a family affair. The 77-year old expects the installation will be around long after she’s gone.
“I think farming the sun is legitimate, and far more valuable,” she said, dismissing criticisms that solar is harming the state’s agricultural industry. “Our solar farm was about the second in the area, and all of our family was really proud.”
The sheep that help maintain the panels on Livingston’s land are an added bonus for the Laurinburg resident; she wishes even more solar installations were using them.
“It’s really a pleasure to just ride out there and see the animals,” she said.