These sheep work year-round to "lamb-scape" Virginia solar farms
Dominion Energy’s 216-acre solar farm in Sussex County was calm on a recent morning, save for the occasional groan of a shifting solar panel and the constant hum of insects.
Then, Jess Gray set loose Dot, a 2-year-old border collie with a penchant for sniffing out sheep.
Shortly afterward, a moving white mass appeared on the horizon. The herd of sheep rounded the corner of a row of solar panels and stormed past Jess and her husband, Marcus Gray.
The Grays were on one of their regular visits to the solar farm, but they don’t pay much attention to the panels. They’re focused on the greenery growing underneath.
The couple are in a growing industry called solar grazing, or what they like to call “lamb-scaping.” It’s part of a larger movement called agrivoltaics, or using land simultaneously for agriculture and solar energy.
The concept’s pretty simple. Solar farms need to keep vegetation short, so it won’t interfere with the panels. Instead of paying someone to mow the grass, a solar farm operator can hire shepherds like the Grays.
Their sheep munch on the wildflowers, weeds, clovers and other plants that spring up under the solar panels and help keep the area clear and free of fire risk.
“We don’t want anything shading the panels or interfering with the equipment,” Marcus said.
Experts say solar grazing can be a win-win-win situation between solar farms, sheep herders and the environment. Sheep labor can prove cheaper than human landscaping. And for farmers, it’s an opportunity to use wide expanses of land they couldn’t otherwise access.
Solar grazing can also help reduce pollution from heavy-duty lawn mowers powered by fossil fuels and attract pollinators like butterflies.
The sheep’s waste is a natural fertilizer, which improves soil health and absorbs more carbon and water, Marcus Gray said.
The pair now hope to help revive a “sheep economy” in Virginia.
The average sheep farm in the state has just a few dozen animals, Marcus said. The Sussex solar farm alone houses more than four times that.
Instead of being paid a few times a year when selling a commodity, solar grazing provides farmers a reliable monthly payment, he said.
“It's access to land that we couldn't get on otherwise,” he said. “So it's going to be a game changer for the whole sheep industry.”
The Sussex County solar farm contains more than 80,000 solar panels, enough to power about 5,000 homes at peak output, according to Dominion.
The site is one of six currently using the sheep grazing method, said spokesperson Tim Eberly. It’s a pilot project that the company hopes will prove cost-effective enough to continue.
“Right now Dominion Energy is in the midst of this major clean energy transition,” he said. “It includes developing dozens of solar farms across the state. And anywhere we can, we’re trying to be cleaner and greener. And that includes this program.”
The sheep grazing currently only accounts for about half of Dominion’s vegetation needs at the pilot sites. They still have to do some mowing. Eberly said the company aims to eventually reach a balance of 25% traditional landscaping, 75% lamb-scaping.
About 130 sheep from Gray’s Lambscaping live on the Sussex farm, along with Myra, a Great Pyrenees dog who wards off predators.
The business is tasked with keeping the overgrowth well below the panels, or about 18 inches tall.
Sheep are resourceful foragers that can reach areas even a mower might not, according to the American Solar Grazing Association. They might “walk to search for vegetation that might otherwise become a shady nuisance for the solar company,” the organization wrote.
The Grays raise most of the sheep at their home farm in Chatham. Someone checks on the Sussex site twice a week.
A lot of their time is spent simply observing, Jess said.
“I think a lot of people have lost the skill set or the want to just watch,” she said. “There's something very therapeutic about watching the group of the flock of sheep just walk by and hang out and eat.”
Sheep are good at hiding if they're sick or hurt, she said, so the shepherds have to keep a close eye on them.
The Grays herd the flock into different sections of the solar farm over time. They can maintain about 40 acres every few days, Marcus said.
When he pulls out a classic shepherd’s crook, the animals know it’s time to move.
“We’re bringing a very old system into the 21st century,” Marcus said. “It's no different than (working in a) savanna, but the shade and the shelter provided for the animals is the solar panels.”
He said his family’s connection to livestock farming goes back to at least the mid-1800s in the commonwealth, and he's proud to continue that forward.