Research conducted in Minnesota over the past two years points to many beneficial aspects of grazing sheep at ground-mounted solar projects. What is assumed to be the largest solar sheep flock in the United States operates from the MNL grazing facility and has been grazing Enel’s 150-MW Aurora project since 2017. Soil samples from six of the projects were first taken in 2020 and again in 2021 with the preliminary results recently presented.
Research partners MNL, Temple University, Enel and NREL have collected data in the past from the Aurora project which highlights potential benefits in soil health, water quality, stormwater control and pollinator habitat creation. Adding the sheep research to understand the question of enhancing soil carbon is the latest effort to deliver science based data about the co-benefits of solar energy projects.
Sujith Ravi, associate professor at Temple University explained the initial results: “Preliminary results indicate that implementing managed sheep grazing significantly increased soil carbon storage and other nutrients important for plant production.” Results will need to be confirmed through continued analysis of soil properties over the next few years.
Along with pollinator habitat creation, sheep grazing may be the most effective agricultural activity to maintain a connection to the original use of the acres in solar.
“More solar means more opportunities for new farmers to get started in the industry,” said Audrey Lomax, grazing manager at MNL. “We consult with solar projects throughout the Midwest and the concept of grazing sheep on a solar projects opens the door for new shepherds who may lack easy access to grazing land to get started.”
With the new interest is soil carbon credits across the country, solar projects may also have another crop to harvest under the solar modules. Early estimates show, and long-term study may confirm, that an acre of recovering agricultural soil with native plants installed may produce one ton of sequestered carbon per year, and that can possibly accumulate for 12 to 15 years before saturation is reached. Utilizing sheep as a vegetation maintenance tool can reduce the overall carbon footprint of maintenance of the energy project, maintain a tie to the local agricultural community, build soil health, and enhance soil carbon sequestration.