The Positive Environmental Impacts of Solar Grazing

By: Jess Gray · Jan. 29, 2024 · 5 min

Solar grazing, a practice integrating solar energy production with agricultural grazing, presents an innovative approach to land use, yielding significant environmental benefits. This innovative synergy generates renewable energy and supports sustainable agriculture, biodiversity, and numerous environmental benefits:

  • Sustainable Land Use: Solar grazing allows for the dual use of land, combining solar energy production with sheep grazing. This practice addresses a common critique of solar farms – that they occupy land that could otherwise be used for agriculture – by enabling both activities to coexist harmoniously.

  • Carbon Sequestration: Grazing under solar panels can enhance soil carbon sequestration. The presence of vegetation in solar farms, as opposed to bare ground or gravel, fosters a microenvironment where plants can thrive, absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. A study presented at the AGU 2021 Fall Meeting highlights evidence suggesting that well-managed grazing practices can increase the carbon storage capabilities of soil, potentially offsetting some of the carbon footprint associated with producing and installing solar panels.

  • Biodiversity and Habitat Creation: Integrating solar farms with grazing can create habitats for a variety of species, thus enhancing local biodiversity. Research indicates that the shade solar panels provide can lead to more diverse and resilient plant communities, offering habitats for insects, birds, and small mammals. A 2023 study published in Earth’s Future suggests that agrivoltaic best practices and maintaining natural vegetation among solar arrays contribute to ecological health and wildlife conservation.

  • Water Conservation: Solar grazing can contribute to water conservation in several ways. The vegetation cover in solar grazing setups reduces soil erosion and water runoff, improving water retention. This helps maintain soil health and reduces the need for supplemental watering, which is particularly beneficial in arid regions. Furthermore, the shade from solar panels reduces the evaporation of soil moisture, further conserving water. One study published in PLoS One found that integrating solar farming with agriculture increased water use efficiency, especially in semi-arid areas with water scarcity, by optimizing shade patterns to benefit crop growth. Solar grazing, through rotational grazing, enhances water conservation by promoting staggered plant blooms and deeper root systems. This increases water absorption, reduces runoff and soil erosion, and creates a self-sustaining ecosystem that cools the ground and solar panels, leading to healthier plants for grazing.
  • Supporting Pollinators: Solar grazing sites often incorporate a variety of flowering plants that are beneficial for pollinators. By providing a habitat for bees, butterflies, and other pollinating insects, solar farms can contribute to the health of local ecosystems, which is vital for pollinating many crops and wild plants. Unlike mowing, which simultaneously eradicates all local plant life on a solar farming site, solar grazing sustains pollinator populations throughout the growing season by encouraging continuous plant growth, flowering, and reblooming. An article published by the U.S. Department of Energy summarizes key research projects investigating the benefits of solar grazing on pollinator populations.

  • Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction: Grazing sheep on solar farms can reduce greenhouse gas emissions in two ways. First, solar grazing lowers fossil fuel consumption and emissions by reducing the need for gas-powered maintenance equipment. Second, well-managed grazing practices can enhance carbon sequestration in the soil, offsetting some of the carbon footprint associated with agricultural and energy production activities. Maintaining sheep on-site year-round and across generations amplifies the benefits for the land and the animals. We encourage solar companies to adopt continuous grazing, which minimizes the need for transporting sheep and significantly reduces fuel consumption.

  • Pesticide Reduction: Solar grazing operations that rely on sheep for vegetation management can significantly reduce the use of chemical pesticides. This benefits the local ecosystem by reducing chemical runoff and supports healthier pollinator populations by preserving their habitats and food sources. Over time, as sheep selectively graze on a site, they naturally favor beneficial plants, enhancing their growth and dominance. This selective feeding strategy gradually suppresses undesirable vegetation, reducing the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides. The process unfolds organically as the sheep continually graze the area.

  • Enhanced Soil Health: Grazing sheep on solar farms can improve soil health through natural fertilization. Sheep manure acts as an organic fertilizer, enriching the soil with nutrients plants need to grow, including nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, and potassium. In addition to these macronutrients, sheep manure can provide a range of essential micronutrients for plant growth, including zinc, copper, manganese, and iron. The organic matter in sheep manure improves soil structure, increases water retention, and promotes the activity of beneficial microorganisms. This enhances soil fertility and contributes to the long-term sustainability of agricultural systems. These nutrients support various functions within the plant, from disease resistance to growth and development. Solar grazing also avoids soil compaction and erosion that heavy mowing machinery might cause, preserving soil structure and promoting aeration and water infiltration.

  • Weed Control: Mowing companies often charge extra for weed-whacking around arrays. Instead of paying for time-intensive labor, sheep grazing helps control weed growth, reducing the need for chemical herbicides that can harm the environment. Sheep naturally graze on various vegetation, keeping weed populations in check and promoting the growth of desirable forage species.

Solar grazing contributes to biodiversity by enhancing soil health, plant speciation, and pollinator populations

Solar Grazing Offers A More Sustainable, Eco-Friendly Option

Agrivoltaics represents a forward-thinking fusion of agriculture and photovoltaic solar energy production, embodying a multifaceted solution to some of today’s most pressing environmental challenges. This innovative approach maximizes land use efficiency by allowing for the simultaneous generation of renewable energy and cultivation of crops or livestock grazing but also significantly contributes to water conservation, soil health, and biodiversity. By creating a microclimate beneficial for plant growth, reducing the need for chemical inputs, and enhancing carbon sequestration, agrivoltaics aligns with sustainability principles and ecological balance. It also offers a promising avenue to mitigate land-use conflicts between energy and food production, addressing the global need for renewable energy sources and sustainable agricultural practices.

With the capacity to support local economies and bolster food and energy security in the face of climate change, agrivoltaics stands out as a key component of future eco-friendly energy production, showcasing a harmonious integration of technology and nature.