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Solar farms and sheep show the makings of a clean energy classic duo

Solar sheep dog courtesy Capital Power

By Hanneke Brooymans, BRC-Canada Senior Communications Lead

February 14, 2024

Solar farms and sheep, it turns out, go together like peanut butter and jam, or Batman and Robin. 

They complement each other so well that an expansion of this partnership across many of Canada's solar farms seems entirely logical to Janna Greir, a leader in the field. 

Greir and her husband, Ryan, own Whispering Cedars Ranch and a new consulting firm called Solar Sheep. This year will be their third season working with Capital Power at the company’s 41-megawatt Strathmore Solar facility in Alberta.  

They started with 300 ewes, but this year will be bringing 600 ewes with them, each with twin lambs at foot. The simple math shows how well this is going. And Greir thinks they can easily count more sheep in the near future. 

“The potential for growth there is huge.” 

It’s all smiles on the Capital Power side of the fence, too. 

“We use the sheep as our primary vegetation control method,” says Brad Cochrane, Capital Power’s Renewables Operations and Maintenance Manager. The biggest goal is to control the height of the vegetation to limit fire risk.  

Grazing sheep is cheaper than mowing and more sustainable, too, he says. A recent environmental life cycle analysis study backs him up – solar grazing is twice as land use efficient as providing sheep and solar energy services separately. 

Sheep are also a well-mannered partner for panels, nibbling decorously up to, and around, the equipment. Goats, on the other hand, would be a little too...gruff. Cochrane explains that goats have some bad habits, with a tendency to scale panels and snack on wire insulation. These are faux pas in a solar facility. 

For those who might be thinking this is all sunshine and lollipops for the panels only, Greir corrects the record. In fact, one of her favorite parts of this working relationship is what the panels do for the sheep, particularly as the climate gets hotter and drier. 

In southern Alberta, “We’re pretty light in the tree department,” she says. But at the solar farm, the sheep have shade and shelter all day long. It makes her shepherd heart happy to see her sheep easily escape heat stress by strolling over to the shade of a panel. 

The Greirs and Capital Power are sitting in the sweet spot of their project now. But there were a few adjustments made at the outset of the joint venture.  

From the shepherd’s perspective, there’s a greater time commitment to ensure proper rotational grazing takes place. You can’t just “set ‘em and forget ‘em,” as many long-time shepherds are accustomed to, Greir says.  

There was also some overhead capital to be spent on electric fencing and there’s the ongoing cost of having to truck in water because the solar farm’s environmental permit doesn’t let Capital Power pull water to the site. Then again, Greir knows she and her husband have saved money by not having to purchase additional land to graze their expanding flock.  

On Cochrane’s side, there was a need to establish a communications flow to ensure operations and maintenance tasks never got tangled up in the rotational grazing movements of the sheep. He also had to ensure the percentage of weeds in the pasture was relatively low.  

Greir agrees this is essential.  She recommended a nutritious seed mix of several varieties of grasses and legumes. The two sheep breeds they keep, Rideau Arcotts and Canadian Arcotts, love it.  

During times of drought, a lot of farmers were having trouble finding productive pasture for their animals. Not Greir. “We found the complete opposite — the vegetation really flourished there.” Greir thinks the grass grows taller and thicker on a solar farm because of shading and dew runoff. 

In fact, crop benefits from solar farms are proven. Joshua Pearce, an engineering professor at Western University, has studied agrivoltaics, as this mash up of agriculture and photovoltaics is known, for more than 20 years. In a research paper he published last year on the potential of agrivoltaics in Canada, he notes that pasture grass was just one of 12 crops for which studies have demonstrated that agrivoltaics increases crop yield.  

“One thing that agrivoltaics does really well is conserve water,” says Pearce, who is also the John M. Thompson Chair in Information Technology and Innovation at the university. China has even used it to reverse desertification, he says.  

In his recent study, Alberta popped up in second place in the country for agrivoltaics potential, behind only Saskatchewan. But he realizes that renewable energy developers may be wary of trying out some of the crops in Canada, where less research has been done. With that in mind, his team is going to demonstrate different types of racks and designs for solar panel modules that may need to be tilted or moved during harvest season or at any other time.  

He says it would help if large-scale field demonstrations were done in Alberta. The key is to install solar systems that allow farmers to carry on normal operations. You can do this by spacing solar rows out far enough that combines and tractors can drive between them and by using vertical racks or tracker systems. This way, farmers can harvest a crop and make money by generating clean energy on their land. 

For now, sheep are getting the vote of confidence in Alberta. Capital Power has a second solar facility in the M.D. of Taber that began operations in late 2022 that could potentially accommodate sheep in the future after necessary vegetation has been established. 

Another developer that has embraced this “partnersheep” is Elemental Energy. Elemental has implemented sheep grazing programs at all six of their facilities across Alberta and Saskatchewan, says Dan Eaton, director of project development with the company. That involves 1,000 sheep so far and he sees a lot more potential. 

“Canada is a net importer of sheep with over half of the sheep consumed coming from New Zealand, Australia, and the U.S.,” Eaton notes. “Alberta is the third-highest sheep producing province behind Ontario and Quebec. We see a real opportunity to expand this form of agriculture while we generate sustainable energy from the sun. Sheep grazing and solar energy are a win-win for the province.”