Along busy M-72 in Traverse City, rows of huge solar panels gleam in the sun. And in the shade underneath them … are sheep.
This is “solar grazing,” where livestock are placed on solar arrays to keep vegetation around the panels in check.
The renewable company Heritage Sustainable Energy first put panels at the site in 2017. At the time, the array seemed big, and it’s grown in the years since, now measuring 30 acres. Heritage sells the electricity to Traverse City Light and Power.
Still, it’s small compared to other arrays that have gone up around the state in recent years.
“Now there are solar arrays 150 times bigger than this. 150 megawatts,” Heritage Operations Manager Bart Hautala said. “So you figure six acres per megawatt — it’s a 900-acre solar array.”
It’s the third summer sheep have grazed around the M-72 site, and they seem to be at home, eating grass and depositing droppings along the paths.
“It seems like that’s all they do,” Hautala said. “They eat and there’s a lot of it. Like, I don’t know where all this food is coming from. They won’t eat the flowers, but they like the weeds.”
HOPES FOR AGRIVOLTAICS
Solar power is a central part of Michigan’s plan to transition to renewable energy.
As more projects go in, some solar companies and farmers are trying to work together to use land in ways that will benefit everyone involved.
Solar grazing is part of the field of agrivoltaics, when farming and renewable energy projects work together to use land for energy and agriculture. Hautola said hosting 30 sheep on the array is a win-win: Sheep eat the grass, and that prevents the foliage from shading the panels.
“It’s a multi-use land now,” he said. “Before, it was just farmland and then after that it was just a solar array, but now it’s a multipurpose use. It’s environmentally friendly. We’re helping out a farmer. He’s got more space to put more sheep, as opposed to just doing it on his own property and having limited space.”
Proponents see agrivoltaics as a great answer to the question of land use in Michigan. In practice, however, it can be difficult.
NOT EVERYONE’S ON BOARD
Samantha Craig has worked as a shepherd for about six years. The flock has been growing since 2007, when her husband started it. She’s based in Van Buren County in southwest Michigan, where she and her family manage Craig Farms Kathadins — and over 200 sheep.
The economy is never easy for farmers, but the past few years have been especially tough. Craig said the pandemic and inflation hit small and mid-sized farms hard, and the cost of just about everything has jumped, including equipment, repairs, and supplies.
“It’s rough. It’s very rough,” she said. “We’ll just put it that way. It’s rough.”
Solar could be a path toward a steady income and long-term viability for farmers, Craig said, with more money as solar operators pay them to manage the vegetation, instead of paying to have it mowed.
Craig has been thinking about how to use sheep like this for a while. The farm website has a section called lambscaping, and the family has partnered with United Agrivoltaics, which works with farmers and solar providers across the country to set up solar grazing.
Still, Craig hasn’t been able to get her sheep on any arrays yet. One challenge is logistics. Sheep need water, routine care, food and shelter — things many existing solar sites aren’t built to accommodate. There are significant costs associated with to manage vegetation at solar arrays. And even when companies are focused on working with farmers, local ordinances, zoning and bureaucracy can mean a lot of red tape.
Craig had hoped to get her sheep onto an existing solar array nearby, but she hasn’t gotten far with the local government.
“They may update things over the season, it was just definitely disappointing not to have the sheep out there this summer,” she said. “We were really hoping that that would come to fruition.”
There’s also opposition to solar projects on farmland altogether. Across the state, communities have expressed concerns that losing that land to solar could damage the local environment and cause property values to decline. Many townships have placed moratoriums on solar and wind development.
Sanilac County, in Michigan’s thumb, recently published a study as part of its master plan showing that transitioning agricultural land to solar would damage the local economy and culture. This month, Craig’s neighboring township voted overwhelmingly not to allow large-scale solar panels on agricultural land.
And last spring, the group Michigan Citizens for the Protection of Farmland started a petition to block utility-scale solar on agricultural land, though it wouldn’t apply to residential or farm-based solar projects geared toward powering the farm operation.
In a post on Change.org, the group worried that state policy could force communities without enough space to use that land for renewable projects, or else risk energy company lawsuits. The draft also cites environmental and economic concerns, emphasizing the preservation of land for farming, biodiversity and rural communities.
A WAY FORWARD
Michigan State University Extension’s Charles Gould is familiar with the concerns and questions around solar grazing. He first got involved with agrivoltaics about a decade ago, when farmers began asking him for advice on solar company lease agreements.
Since then, he’s delved into the dynamics of local governance, farming and solar power. Gould said many farmers have come to see solar lease agreements as a sort of retirement package, and some consequently bristle at local efforts to restrict solar development, seeing them as a threat to their chances at financial stability.
“It evolved to: This is a takings issue,” he said. Farmers were asking, “‘How does a township have the right to tell me how to use my land?’”
Of course, farmers are far from united on the issue. Others don’t like the idea of working with solar companies or leasing their land for renewables.
Gould agrees that other areas should be considered for solar projects before farmland, like brownfields, right-of-ways, and warehouse roofs.
But, he said, solar can help farmers keep their land in the family. If planned correctly and if regulations allow, that land could be used for crops, pollinator habitat or grazing. And solar can also help offset energy costs for things like grain drying or milking parlors.
As the state pursues its renewable energy goals, companies will continue to approach communities with these plans, according to MSU. To help local governments tackle solar planning and zoning questions, Gould and others created a guide, which includes templates for wind and solar zoning ordinances and steps on how to plan for various situations.
The goal of this work is to help communities, solar companies and farmers to hash out plans before the panels go up.
“Really, if we want to be successful at this, we need to back up and think ahead of time before that solar project is on board,” Gould said. “Bring all the partners together, have them all sit down and figure out what that’s going to look like.”
This article was corrected to reflect that Samantha Craig has worked as a shepherd for six years, and her husband started the flock in 2007.
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Featured image: Sheep graze around solar panels at Heritage Sustainable Energy’s M-72 array on Aug. 2. (Photo: Izzy Ross/IPR News)