Connecticut solar developers enlist sheep to cut grass and ease tensions

Energy News Network | Lisa Prevost
March 3, 2021

Several projects before the state’s siting board propose integrating sheep grazing with photovoltaic installations.

It wasn’t your usual Connecticut Siting Council hearing.

The petition before the regulators last week concerned a proposed 4.99-megawatt solar project on a tobacco farm in East Windsor. But many of the councilors’ questions for developer Greenskies Clean Energy had little to do with the technicalities of solar.

Robert Hannon wanted to know how manure would be handled. John Morissette asked about the level of animal noise. And Chair Robert Silvestri wondered if the site would be safe from coyotes and other predators.

The answers were vague, as this is the first time Greenskies has proposed using sheep to control vegetation on a solar site.

The siting council is likely to become more savvy about the particulars in coming months as another Connecticut solar developer, Verogy, has proposed using sheep at three projects pending in East Windsor, Southington and Bristol.

The proposals reflect the growing interest throughout the region in what’s called agrivoltaics — the practice of combining agricultural uses and renewable energy production on the same parcel of land.

The idea is that “we essentially utilize the sheep for vegetation maintenance, and it allows the property to continue in an agricultural use,” said Gina Wolfman, a senior project developer for Greenskies.

And instead of revenues being paid out to landscaping services, “they are directed to the farming community,” said Bryan Fitzgerald, a co-founder of and director of development at Verogy.

That can help ease tensions around the use of prime farmland for large-scale solar arrays.

“It’s great PR,” said Caleb Scott, who owns a landscaping and solar grazing business in the Ithaca, New York, area and sits on the board of the American Solar Grazing Association. “When you can make dual use of space, it makes it harder for the community to feel like they’re losing their agricultural land. And it’s kind of the shot in the arm that the farming industry needs right now — this provides a money-making opportunity for them.”

Properly managed grazing is good for the land, as it “has a well-established basis of improving soil health and ecology,” said Jonathan Barter, a grazing specialist who also sits on the board and works as grazing director for Delaware River Solar. “There’s been a big push in the last 10 years to promote soil health.”

The association helps solar developers connect with sheep farmers in the region. The developer typically contracts with a farmer (in the same way they would with a landscaping service) to graze and manage their sheep on a solar site between April/May and October/November.

The number of sheep required depends on a variety of factors, but is usually around 2.5 to 3 sheep per acre, Scott said.

The panels provide good shelter for the sheep from sun and rain. And manure can be managed if the ground is well vegetated.

“Healthy plants will utilize all the nutrients the projects are producing and you won’t have a problem,” Barter said. “It’s converted into usable nutrients within a very short period of time.”

In Connecticut, promising to share farm-based sites with sheep is helping solar developers win approval from the state Department of Agriculture, which is required under a 2017 state law to issue a finding as to whether such projects will have a material effect on the status of prime farmland.

In a letter to the siting council regarding the Greenskies project, agricultural Commissioner Bryan P. Hurlburt said he was satisfied that it will not have an adverse impact, citing the developer’s plans for rotational grazing of sheep, seeding the site with a mix developed to meet the nutritional needs of sheep and attract pollinators, and the introduction of several beehives.

On one of Verogy’s projects, a 4.725-megawatt project proposed on hay fields in Southington, the department required additional commitments beyond sheep and beehives. That’s because the project would result in the displacement of an established farmer who has been leasing the land. Verogy is to put a community garden on the site, and the landowner, the Catholic Cemeteries Association, is to sell the development rights to permanently protect about 60 acres.

But the state Council on Environmental Quality is not convinced that adding an agricultural use to solar sites will end up preserving farmland. The council has long had concerns about the amount of farm and forest lands being absorbed by solar. In a 2017 report, it noted that the area of such lands selected and/or approved for solar facilities in 2016 was almost equal to the area preserved by the state in an average year.

Last year, Connecticut preserved 1,015 acres of farmland, according to Peter Hearn, the council’s executive director. Of all the solar energy projects the council reviewed in 2020, about 450 acres of farmland would potentially be converted.

Hearn said he understands that the agriculture department “is in a bit of a bind” in making a determination about the impact of these projects, as farmers often need the supplemental income from solar leases.

“But what we’ve tried to point out to the siting council is that there’s been a fair amount of petitions for farmland which, when considered cumulatively, really do have the potential of affecting the viability of agriculture in the state,” he said.

The environmental council finds it unlikely that the panels will only be temporary, and that the land will be returned to agricultural use after 20 to 25 years.

“Solar facilities are located in places that are proximate to transmission, and once the infrastructure is there, there’s no logic or reason to think that someone is going to pull that all out and put in hay for cows,” Hearn said.

Jeff Hintzke, Greenskies’ vice president of policy and new markets, said the decision of whether to try to renew the contract would depend on the economics at that time. While putting a solar array on farmland is no guarantee that it will return to agricultural use, “at least it’s a kind of development that will enable that to happen. Residential development would not, clearly.”

The siting council has approved Verogy’s plan for a 3.25-megawatt project on 19 acres of farmland in Bristol. Fitzgerald said he believes it will be the first in the state to incorporate grazing sheep, possibly later this year.

Interest in solar grazing across the Northeast is growing exponentially as solar projects multiply on a much larger scale. And according to Barter, “that’s introducing a whole new problem — we don’t have nearly enough sheep in the area.”

The average flock size in the Northeast is less than 300 breeding ewes, he said, while the demand from solar developers will likely number in the tens of thousands.

He and other people in the field are talking about the cost efficiency of bringing in sheep from the Midwest, or possibly utilizing dairy farms threatened with going out of business.

“These are tough times for the dairy industry,” he said. “Perhaps we could use their empty buildings to raise ewes and lambs to contract to put on solar sites.”