Juno only appeared to be lying down on the job, lazily munching a snack at the community solar farm on Thursday.
Juno, a sheep from Suffolk, Mass., was actually being productive, as one of a herd of 15 “lambscapers” from Solar Shepherd LLC that were grazing on the fescue, grapevine and crabgrass surrounding a field of solar panels.
The sheep were brought in to manage vegetation naturally around the 4,212 panels covering 20 acres of Varney Farm’s 160-acre property, in Mendon, Mass.
Sheep are being tried for the first time on a solar project in Massachusetts at the Mendon farm, although they’re used elsewhere, to control grass surrounding solar arrays that would otherwise require mowing or, more typically, herbicide application.
The community solar farm, which produces approximately 5.1 million kilowatt hours per year, enough to power 405 homes annually, is owned and operated by Ameresco and co-developed by BlueWave Solar. The project has 38 community solar customers, including two anchor tenants, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts and the town of Mendon, according to information provided by developers.
“We set this up to target solar markets,” said Dan Finnegan of Mansfield, founder and general manager of Solar Shepherds.
Combining agriculture and energy is a win-win, representatives of both industries said.
Finnegan said the sheep’s grazing will deepen the roots of pasture grass and return nutrients to the soil, making it more fertile.
Will Bland, project manager for Ameresco, pointed to studies showing that grazing alters the density of soil in a way that enhances the operation of the solar panels.
The sheep will munch under and around solar panels in one fenced section of the property for a week, then move on to another. They’ll stay at the site for a month, Mr. Finnegan said, sleeping under the panels as shelter.
The woolly workers meet important job qualifications for solar farm management: They graze plants down to the ground, they like to stay together in a flock, and unlike goats, which like to climb, they stay off the solar panels. Even better, according to Finnegan, sheep are allergic to copper, so they don’t interfere with electrical wiring.
“The sheep are really the right animal for this job,” he said.
Grazing livestock around solar panels is also in line with the state Department of Agricultural Resources’ efforts to promote more dual use of land, according to Gerry Palano, alternative energy specialist with the MDAR, who was touring the Mendon solar farm Thursday.
“When farmers have a choice, we try to use every square foot of land,” Palano said.
A University of Massachusetts research farm in South Deerfield has been trying out this approach for a few years, first grazing livestock and now growing trial crops – kale, broccoli and peppers – under solar panels that are high enough off the ground and spaced sufficiently to allow sunlight to reach the plants.
That way, “The land remains productive,” Palano said. “Our whole state benefits from the local food market.”
Members of the Varney family, who own the land, “really dedicated this portion of the farm to sustainable energy,” said Paul Makris, vice president of Ameresco, based in Framingham. He said the project was a joint inspiration with Ameresco President and CEO George Sakellaris, who grew up in Greece on a sheep farm.
John DeVillars, co-founder and chairman of BlueWave Solar, who is a former regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and former state secretary of the environment, said developers’ goal was to generate clean electricity and advance Massachusetts agriculture.
BlueWave Solar is also involved with another sustainable agriculture and energy pilot at Knowlton Farm in Grafton, Mass.
That 3.7-megawatt solar project will be focused on growing vegetables around the panels, DeVillars said.
“We and a lot of other (solar energy) developers have taken down a lot of trees, taken fields that were for haying,” he said. “This is a way to mitigate that impact.”