Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Massachusetts environmentalists discover a new good friend: Sheep


More than 200 sheep graze among the many 15,000 photo voltaic panels on the Fitchburg Renewables photo voltaic farm. The sheep are owned by Finicky Farm, managed by Jesse Robertson-Dubois and his daughter, Elspeth. The sheep eat the lengthy grass, grass and clover from blocking the panes.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Once an deserted apple orchard, this land was reworked nearly three years in the past right into a photo voltaic farm, with lots of of panels unfold over its 20 hectares. The proprietor of the panels, the photo voltaic firm Nexamp, leased the land from the orchard proprietor for 25 years. Shortly after the location’s launch, the corporate partnered with Finicky Farms, owned by the Robertson-Dubois household. In alternate for conserving the grass low, the farmers are paid by the photo voltaic firm, and can even use the land as a free pasture for a flock of 215 sheep, which they course of and promote regionally. that are sheep.

For sheep, the panels present safety from warmth, rain, and snow, with some sheep even utilizing the bottom of the construction as a scratching submit throughout shedding. Meanwhile, Elspeth Robertson-Dubois stated, the herd’s fixed consumption of floor forage prevents grass vegetation from rising massive sufficient to dam daylight from reaching the panels, conserving the productiveness of the array. As they graze, the sheep additionally enhance the well being of the soil, a profit to the biodiversity of the vegetation and animals that graze there.

A decade in the past, grazing sheep on land meant for photo voltaic panels was only a pipe dream for Massachusetts farmers and environmentalists. But in 2018, the state made a giant push for photo voltaic with its monetary incentive program, SMART (Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target), which requires utility firms to assist the event of smaller photo voltaic vegetation. initiatives. The proliferation of photo voltaic panels nearer to the bottom, slightly than on the roofs of buildings, creates what Robertson-Dubois calls a “beautiful symbiotic relationship†between agriculture and renewable vitality, doubling the utility of a plot of land.

This shared use of land between agriculture and solar energy is called agrivoltaics. There are no less than 45 photo voltaic operations in Massachusetts that share land with farmers, in response to the state Department of Energy. Of these, seven are presently benefiting from the SMART program, making Massachusetts the primary state to supply monetary incentives for agrivoltaics. And, in response to the vitality division, an extra 14 websites utilizing that program are on the way in which.

While grazing round photo voltaic panels is without doubt one of the most typical examples, rising crops akin to beets and carrots within the shade of photo voltaic panels has additionally elevated in reputation over the previous decade. Finicky Farms is presently one of many few grazing operations in Massachusetts utilizing land underneath photo voltaic panels, however the business is increasing all through New England.

“When we aren’t grazing, we rent garden mower groups to come back in,†Keith stated. Hevenor, communications supervisor for Nexamp Solar. “Number one, they’re burning fossil fuels to chop the grass in a clear vitality house, which is sort of anti-solar.â€

And with the mowers, “it’s fairly harmful: you come right here with a lawnmower and begin kicking rocks across the photo voltaic panels. [or] stumble upon one thing,†stated Hevenor. “Sheep is a decrease affect, safer, and positively extra sustainable approach of managing crops for us.â€

The photo voltaic firm has additionally began experimenting with pigs at considered one of its websites in upstate New York, and Hevenor says the one animals they do not work with are goats: “Goats love that climb, and so they eat every thing” ” together with wires, ropes, and fences, he stated.

A sheep eats a chunk of rye grass underneath a photo voltaic panel. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

†We actually have a herd of goats,†Elspeth Roberston-Dubois stated, “but we do not graze in this sort of array as a result of they’ve enjoyable attempting to leap the panels!†He added that grazing with goats is feasible in tilted arrays, or group of panels., with photo voltaic panels that transfer with the solar, positioned larger off the bottom.

The nation’s oldest photo voltaic farm was launched in California within the Nineteen Eighties, and it took a number of a long time for the expertise to turn into the key renewable vitality business it’s as we speak. However, regardless that photo voltaic panel farms have turn into extra frequent within the twenty first century, for a lot of the yr 2010, the observe of sharing land with livestock is uncommon, occurring solely “with minimal adaptation and began all around the nation,†in response to Daniel Finnegan, a board member of the American Solar Grazing Association and proprietor of Solar Shepherd, one of many first Massachusetts-based photo voltaic grazing operations.

When Finnegan joined the affiliation as a founding member in 2018, there have been lower than a dozen members. This yr, he stated, members have grown to nearly 800 within the nation.

“The actual explosion, this contemporary tackle photo voltaic grazing, began in 2018,†defined Finnegan. “It truly begins alongside the Mass Pike within the Greater Worcester space all the way in which to the Finger Lakes.â€

Jesse Robertson-Dubois, who began photo voltaic grazing along with his daughter Elspeth in 2021, witnessed firsthand the rise of photo voltaic in central Massachusetts and was fast to get entangled.

“We moved from managing a farm in Western Mass to managing a farm in Eastern Mass. I had a yr the place I used to be driving backwards and forwards, going up and down the Pike with all of the photo voltaic arrays … and I used to be like, ‘Something is occurring right here that may work!’†he stated, recalling the various occasions he pulled his truck as much as a photo voltaic array to take a look at the wire fence of acres of small weeds sprouting beneath. the panels. He now rotates his sheep between 10 totally different photo voltaic websites all through Massachusetts.

On any given day, in response to Hevenor, the Fitchburg web site alone produces 5 megawatts of electrical energy, sufficient to energy roughly 800 massive houses.

Dorothy McGlincy, environmental scientist and government director of the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions, stated that whereas conservationists strongly assist the rise of photo voltaic on houses, parking tons, and different buildings, there are conditions, akin to land that’s not good the standard of the soil or sure vegetation, the place putting photo voltaic panels in open inexperienced house is sensible.

The affiliation “supports the event of fresh vitality initiatives on land that doesn’t have an effect on major farmland, cut back meals manufacturing capability, have an effect on wetland sources, or negatively affect open house,†he stated.

However, due to its measurement, Massachusetts photo voltaic grazing websites are usually smaller than different states (Finnegan stated photo voltaic farms right here are usually nearer to a dozen acres, slightly than just a few hundred), he hopes the business will proceed to flourish within the coming years.

“The purpose photo voltaic firms are going for it’s as a result of they see the development in soil well being and see it as a greater, smarter approach to make use of this land,†he stated. “Massachusetts, whereas we’re one of many first, now we have solely simply begun to scratch the floor.â€

Ivy Scott could be reached at [email protected]. Follow him @itsivyscott.

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