According to producers, sheep grazing under solar panels on farms in mid-west New South Wales have produced better and more wool in the four years since the projects began.
Sheep grazing in solar farm trials shows increased wool quantity and quality
There are calls for more research on the co-location of agriculture and renewable energy
NSW Government review of agriculture and renewable energy received 100 submissions
Local ranchers called the installation a “complete win-win”, with the sheep helping to keep grass and weeds down so as not to obscure the panels.
In turn, the panels provided shade for sheep and grass, and helped prevent the soil from drying out.
Wool broker Graeme Ostini, who has grazed merino sheep on a solar farm near Parkes as part of a trial with the Parkes Show Society, said he had seen the benefits of running the animals under panels.
He said his sheep had slightly less stock than the district average, but they were shearing an “astonishing” amount of wool.
He said he credited the good season and the solar panels for the improvement.
Increased load capacity by 25pc
While Mr. Ostini’s sheep were lighter than average, those of farmer and breeder Dubbo Tom Warren were slightly heavier.
Mr. Warren leases part of his land to a solar farm and operates around 250 merino ewes and ewes on 54 hectares among the panels.
Like Mr. Ostini, Mr. Warren also reported impressive results.
He did not notice an increase in the amount of wool, but said the quality had improved.
“It will be because of the conditions the sheep live in,” he said.
Mr Warren said the carrying capacity of the pitch had also increased by around 25%.
During the drought, water condensed on the solar panels in the morning. Water runoff on the grass below keeps the pasture strips green.
In total, he says, by renting his land to the solar farm and grazing his sheep there, his income has increased.
More research, more studies
Madeline Taylor, a researcher in energy policy and landowners’ rights, said the field needs more research and, crucially, more funding for pilot projects.
“We are starting to have a very good database of studies showing how co-location of agriculture and photovoltaics can be done successfully,” Dr Taylor said.
Dr Taylor said there would be benefits in having larger scale studies.
Skeptics urge caution
Earlier this year, a review of the issues and opportunities arising from the growth of the renewable energy and agriculture sectors was commissioned by the New South Wales government.
NSW Energy Minister Matt Kean said he would “consider all opportunities to improve existing frameworks, such as the co-existence of solar and wind with agriculture”.
There were 100 submissions made to the review and the final report is expected at the end of the year.
Wagga Wagga Independent MP Joe McGirr has called for a moratorium on all solar farm developments until the review is complete.
Mr McGirr said the idea of agriculture and solar farms co-existing without any impact on land or production was “oversold”.
In Wagga Wagga, farmers neighboring the solar farms have expressed concern that runoff from the panels could raise the already high water table.
“They are also very skeptical that more than a handful of sheep will be able to run on these properties,” Mr McGirr said.
He said he would like research on livestock grazing on solar farms to be completed before any renewable energy development begins.
“We have the developments going on…and the discussion and the research will come later.
“My concern is that it will be too late, the damage will be done.”
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