The American Solar Grazing Association (ASGA) will begin collecting and analyzing data on the agricultural, economic, and environmental impacts of co-locating agricultural enterprises such as commercial beekeeping and sheep grazing on photovoltaic sites.
“New York State has one of the most ambitious solar energy mandates in the country,” says shepherd Lexie Hain, executive director of the American Solar Grazing Association. New York’s renewable energy policies could increase competition for open land — or create new opportunities. “By working together on the same land, farmers and energy developers can realize benefits for all involved while preserving the agricultural character of the state’s rural communities. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition; with this study, ASGA will be able to collect and analyze data on the economic and environmental impacts of co-locating ag and solar ventures on the same site.”
The project is being funded by a $198,000 research grant from the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA) through its Environmental Research Program which aims to increase the understanding and awareness of the environmental and public health impacts of energy choices and emerging energy options and provide a scientific foundation for creating effective and equitable energy-related environmental policies and resource management practices.
“NYSERDA works with stakeholders throughout New York State to develop, invest, and foster the conditions to expand New York’s clean energy economy. We’re pleased to fund ASGA’s work in assessing the impacts and benefits of co-location and documenting how solar developers, shepherds, and beekeepers can optimize these practices to encourage the development of solar energy while preserving New York State’s valuable agricultural and environmental resources,” said Doreen M. Harris, President, and CEO, NYSERDA.
Additional project partners on the two-year study include the New England Division of American Farmland Trust and Juniper Economic Consulting. Data collection and analysis will focus on solar planting mixes, economics of co-location, solar equipment risk, and soil health from 30 existing, ground-mounted solar sites throughout the Northeast — primarily in New York State and neighboring states.
ASGA has already begun recruiting beekeepers, shepherds and solar sites and will continue enrollment throughout the 2021 growing season. For rigor, the study will collect data from co-located sites, as well as conventional, stand-alone operations for comparison purposes. Data will be collected during the 2022 and 2023 grazing seasons. Results of the study will address questions about the quality and profitability of farm products from solar sites, trends in soil health on agriculturally managed solar sites, and the benefits to farmers of working with the solar industry.
Soil scientist Emily Cole, PhD, New England deputy director for American Farmland Trust, notes that the scale of New York State’s solar development efforts makes agrivoltaic enterprises unique in the Northeast. “I’m pleased to be partnering with ASGA and NYSERDA to collect data on best practices for maintaining the agricultural productivity of solar sites in New York,” said Cole. “Done right, co-location is an opportunity to protect and strengthen food systems, meet climate-energy goals, and meet goals for carbon sequestration through well-managed grazing with livestock.”
Photovoltaic sites owned and operated by Nexamp will be included in the study. “We’re quadrupling the number of sites we’re grazing this season,” said Keith Hevenor, the company’s communication manager, pointing out that the practice clearly aligns with the mission of photovoltaic companies committed to reducing fossil fuel use. Compared to conventional vegetation management, he notes, sheep are less likely to cause damage to solar equipment. “When you start running lawnmowers and weed whackers, there’s a risk of kicking up rocks and gravel that can damage a solar panel.” Solar grazing also is more efficient in steep or hard-to-reach installations. “It’s very safe for the sheep,” said Hevenor. “Solar grazing reflects Nexamp’s mission of responsible land use and making the most of the land that we are contracting to generate clean energy.”
Study participant Jonathan Northrop co-owns Northrop Farms, a family-owned grazing operation in Orleans, New York. In 2021, Northrop Farms will keep sheep on two Nexamp solar sites for a combined 40 acres in Jefferson County, replacing herbicides and gas-powered mowers. “Because we’re in the infancy of this practice, it’s important to establish the true costs, what’s involved,” said Northrop, who also raises grass-fed Angus beef, meat goats, and pigs on pasture. “My wife and I depend 100% on the farm for our income and the mix of enterprises we choose has to make financial sense.”
Participating beekeeper Mike Kiernan of Vermont-based Bee The Change sees solar sites as vital habitats for honeybees, as well as the hundreds of species of native bees, butterflies, and wasps that collectively transform blossoms into vegetables and field crops responsible for one in every three bites on our dinner plates. “Solar fields are an amazing opportunity space,” said Kiernan, whose family keeps bees on three solar sites and manages an additional 25 sites with wildflowers, prairie grasses, and other plants selected to feed and shelter native pollinators. “We love to see these fields full of blossoms and the blossoms full of pollinators!”
The current project builds on a 2018 pilot study by Cornell University.