In Texas, solar energy expansion harmonizes with agricultural practices, utilizing sheep to manage vegetation on solar farms, showcasing a sustainable model of agrivoltaics.
In a pioneering move blending renewable energy with traditional farming, Texas solar farms are employing an innovative practice known as agrivoltaics, where agriculture coexists with solar power generation. This approach is gaining traction across the state, with farmers like Landon Terry, a former cowboy, now tending to flocks of sheep that graze among the solar panels.
Terry, who grew up on a cattle ranch, has adapted to the changing landscape where solar farms have become more prevalent, especially in Texas, which ranks second only to California in solar power production. The integration of sheep farming into solar farms not only maintains the agricultural heritage of the land but also offers a cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternative to traditional vegetation management methods.
The concept of agrivoltaics is not new but has seen a surge in interest as solar technology becomes more affordable and solar farm construction increases. Solar companies typically lease land for several decades, requiring about five to ten acres to generate one megawatt of power, enough to supply around 200 Texas homes during peak demand.
The dual use of land for both solar power and agriculture is seen as a way to make efficient use of space, with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory identifying 383 such sites in the U.S. While Texas does not currently offer specific incentives for agrivoltaic projects, the practice is recognized for its potential to conserve farmland and support farm viability.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller has expressed interest in seeing solar panels installed high enough to allow for cattle grazing or crop planting underneath, addressing the loss of over 2 million acres of agricultural land in the state over the past 25 years. Organizations like the American Farmland Trust advocate for solar projects that allow for the continuation or return of agricultural production on the land.
The story of Amanda Stoffels exemplifies the transformative impact of agrivoltaics. Initially believing that the arrival of a solar facility would end her cattle farming, Stoffels discovered sheep farming as a compatible venture with the solar project, allowing her to remain engaged in agriculture.
At the heart of this practice is the symbiotic relationship between the solar panels and the sheep. The animals keep the grass low, preventing it from shading the panels, while also fertilizing the soil. This not only reduces maintenance costs for the solar farm but also contributes to a self-sustaining ecosystem.
Landon Kerby and his brothers, who run a land management company, have embraced this model, recognizing the value of the grass as feed rather than waste. Their company, KerTec, has been instrumental in establishing sheep grazing as a viable method for managing vegetation at solar facilities.
According to The Texas Tribune, the Enel North America solar farm in Haskell County is a prime example of this successful integration. The company has reported significant savings in maintenance costs and has observed the positive environmental impact of grazing sheep, which is aligned with their mission to foster environmentally friendly practices.
In this evolving landscape, Terry and his flock of sheep are at the forefront, demonstrating that renewable energy and agriculture can coexist and thrive. The sheep, content in their role, contribute to the maintenance of the solar farm while continuing the age-old tradition of grazing, under the protective watch of a donkey named Pete, against the backdrop of Texas's vast solar arrays.
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