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Utility-scale solar could be a big win for Ohio's livestock farmers

Amanda Wilson and her husband Brady Kirwan run Old Dutch Hops in Highland County. The couple is preparing to graze a 150 solar farm in Warren County.
Alejandro Figueroa
WYSO Public Media
Amanda Wilson and her husband Brady Kirwan run Old Dutch Hops in Highland County. The couple is preparing to graze a 150 solar farm in Warren County.

Renewable energy in Ohio is about to ramp up. The Ohio Power Siting Board says over two dozen utility scale solar farms were approved this year.

Those farms will need upkeep, and not just of the panels: solar companies will need to manage weeds and shrubs on the land itself. That’s a difficult task considering mowers are expensive, can release lots of carbon emissions and sometimes struggle to fit around and under solar panels.

Enter: the humble sheep.

WYSO’s Alejandro Figueroa joined The Ohio Newsroom to talk about the practice of solar grazing.

On how solar grazing works

"Solar companies need to submit a plan for how to manage vegetation when they're going through the application process through the Ohio Power Siting board, the state agency tasked with approving these types of projects.

These are huge solar farms that range from hundreds to thousands of acres; contracting someone to mow all that land can be expensive. Mowers might not fit between or underneath the solar panels. It's loud. Plus, if you're a solar company generating renewable energy, but you go ahead and use gas-powered mowers and you're emitting tons of carbon emissions, it kind of defeats this idea of sustainability.

But sheep don't produce those kinds of emissions. They graze. And it could be more cost-effective for those solar companies. It's called solar grazing, and it's a variation of agrivoltaics – the use of land for both food and solar energy production. It matters because one of the arguments against solar is that it takes usable land from traditional farming."

On what it means for livestock farmers

"The reason why this is significant to livestock farmers, particularly sheep, is because it allows them to expand at a time when buying or renting land to them, make a profit is almost impossible, especially if you're a beginning farmer or a black and brown farmer. I mean, the average price per acre for Ohio farmland right now is over $8,000. So you're basically doubling up on land use, you're generating energy, but you're also producing a source of food.

That said, the lamb market in the Midwest really isn't as big as chicken or beef or pork, but farmers who are jumping on this early are really hoping that if this takes off, investments into that market and higher demand will follow. The advocates I've spoken to say this is still early days, but at the same time, there's a lot of potential here."

On agrivoltaics’ future

"There are other examples of agrivoltaics, but few are as well-researched or as straightforward as solar grazing. Solar grazing is more popular because it's something that farmers know how it works, and herding sheep in solar is not that much different than herding sheep in a regular plot. The way someone explained it to me is that crop production under solar is a nut that researchers haven’t quite figured out how to crack. So there's some more research that needs to be done in that area, which is actually happening through Ohio State University right now. But it's certainly early days."

Clare Roth is the managing editor of The Ohio Newsroom. She coordinates coverage of the entire state, focusing particularly on news deserts.