Solar energy is starting to take on the leading role it deserves in the energy revolution. Environmental awareness and geopolitical circumstances have made it necessary to accelerate a process that, in order to be successful, requires sustainability and respect for any activity that takes place in rural environments. Without these factors, the energy transition is doomed to fail. Under these premises, the concept of ‘agrivoltaics’ was born and has grown, appealing to the symbiosis between the traditional activities of the primary sector (agriculture and livestock) and photovoltaic installations, and which includes the phenomenon that we are dealing with today, solar grazing.
Every company in the photovoltaic sector specialized in building solar farms has acquired the knowledge over the years to be more and more respectful of the habitat where they operate. The aim is to disturb as little as possible the existence of native animals and plants, and to make the solar modules and structures a part of the natural environment.
Seen from this environmental perspective, it has been shown that this coexistence can be advantageous for both livestock entrepreneurs and energy sector players, who have a shared interest in caring for the land on which they will be working. This is when other species come into play.
Why is it so common to see images of flocks of sheep under the shelter of photovoltaic panels? The answer is very simple: grazing activity can be carried out in the same space occupied by a solar plant, thus diversifying the activity in that territory. This is what is known as solar grazing, i.e., the coexistence in the same place of energy activity and species that, with their own activity, contribute to the maintenance of the elements of the plant. Surprising, isn’t it?
The fact is, these animals can move freely between and under the modules and, due to their nutritional habits, they slow down the excess vegetation avoiding the use of chemicals or other environmentally aggressive treatments to remove it. In this way, a double objective, ecological and economical, is achieved.
Advantages of solar grazing
To understand why solar grazing is becoming an increasingly widespread practice (in the United States there is even a non-profit American Solar Grazing Association (ASGA)), it is necessary to consider all its advantages, both for livestock landowners and for potential investors interested in participating in boosting renewable energies.
- Maximum profitability. As we said before, solar grazing enables a dual use of spaces that have very particular and favourable characteristics for photovoltaic installations. Land used for livestock production is usually very sunny, with direct light due to the absence of architectural obstacles and close to a connection point.
- Savings in operation and maintenance (O&M). Solar power plants are built in natural areas where as little modification as possible is made. Therefore, vegetation grows freely and can often lead to ‘hot spots’ due to direct contact of the plants with the modules, which threaten production. This is where sheep, as natural ‘brushcutters’, play an important role while feeding.
- Sheep-friendly spaces. The photovoltaic panels provide an excellent shelter in the middle of nature, allowing the grazing animals to be protected in the shade or from bad weather and to stay outdoors for longer hours, even in the hottest periods of the year.
- Stable and diversified income. Livestock farmers can obtain a double benefit from the space during the life of the solar plant by adding a rental or compensation to its traditional use.
- Long-term contracts. By allowing two parallel activities, solar grazing is an incentive for longer agreements with landowners, which is an advantage for PV project developers.
- Sustainable and environmentally friendly solution. It achieves the objective of minimising the impact on the rural environment.
The numerous advantages of solar grazing have not been overlooked by photovoltaic companies that are responsible for development projects and are aware of the need to preserve the environment. Through these projects, solar installations of different sizes can be set up using a formula that is common in the rural world. It consists of the company acquiring or renting the land from its owner, building the solar plant and then transferring the management of the electricity to an energy distributor. Thus, during the lifetime of the plant, there is the possibility of reaching an agreement for the owner to continue developing another parallel activity such as, solar grazing.