November 5, 2021

How Solar Power Can Benefit Bees, Sheep, and Crops

There are many benefits of solar power. For one, it is a renewable energy source and can help wean the world off fossil fuels that produce climate-warming gases. The U.S. Department of Energy is funding a quest for the best uses of lands around solar farms in an effort to increase public awareness about how they might use them differently, such as grazing sheep or planting crops.  InSPIRE project aims to not only generate power but also boost agricultural production and improve wildlife habitat, among other benefits.

Sheep & Bees

Solar installations in more than 20 states have already been used by farmers to graze their sheep, providing food and fiber while reducing the need for feed or fencing along with giving landowners access to tax benefits from sharing land with other users like utilities and communities.

Sheep munch grasses among solar panels at Cascadilla Community Solar Farm in upstate New York, where bees and butterflies gather pollen from local flowers.

Niko Kochendoerfer, an assistant professor of neurobiology at Cornell University, claims preliminary data from her three-year research indicate that light grazing produces plenty of bees and wildflowers while preventing plants from shading solar panels. Some uncommon bee species are being discovered.

Solar facilities planted with pollinator-friendly indigenous vegetation, in contrast to farmland, would provide three times more habitat quality for pollinators, according to a recent Argonne study. Pollinator-friendly sites would have greater carbon storage capacity by two-thirds, substantially less water runoff, and 95 percent less soil erosion than conventional cropland, it stated.

Vegetables in Solar Shade

Jack's Solar Farm in Longmont, Colorado is another illustration of solar and agriculture working together. The farm now has 3,276 panels installed on its 24 acres (about 10 hectares), providing enough power for roughly 300 homes rather than wheat and hay as before. Tomatoes, squash, kale, and green beans are grown beneath them.

Vegetables grown under six or eight feet (about two to 2½ meters) of sunlight are being compared to those in broad sunshine. During the just-completed first season, outcomes were varied, but shaded crops appeared to have a longer growth period.

Solar developers and researchers are hoping projects with multiple land uses will help reduce resistance from rural residents who don't want farmland put out of use or see solar panels as an eyesore.