Solar farms are cropping up all over NC, in fact, all across the globe. And while they are an excellent idea – harvesting energy from the sun – they create an interesting conundrum.
If they are built in a typical field, how does one keep the grasses and weeds from growing up under and around them? Because as soon as the plant material blocks any part of the solar array, it stops producing electricity.
One answer could be to mow, but this is difficult, and might well require more energy usage than the solar farm produces. A net loss of energy makes little sense.
A tote of Roundup to kills the weeds along the fence line.
Another lousy option is to spray the fields heavily with toxic chemicals. Clean energy at the expense of fertile soils. Strike two.
But there is another option.
How about putting sheep on the fields to eat down the grasses and other plants? Another example of solar double cropping – a concept piloted so brilliantly by Lyle Estill and Michael Tiemann at the Piedmont Eco-industrial Plant in Pittsboro, NC. The solar panels on that site are so elevated that they can even farm underneath them.
Turns out that this sheep option is exactly what is being tried in Mt Airy at Jimmy Mundy’s farm, and soon, in many other locations as well. Solar companies might not want to get into sheep farming, but they can, and are, collaborating with farmers to do this for them.
Lyle and I visited Jimmy Mundy and his sheep that were grazing under a 25 acre solar farm belonging to O2 Energies about a week ago. He has a buyer for all the sheep he can grow and process – up to 35 a week – which is way more than he is raising now.
But to efficiently increase his sheep production he needs a piece of equipment that holds the animal and flips it upside down, so he and his son can quickly clean the hooves. “Every animal has an Achilles’ Heel,” he explained. “With sheep it’s their feet. They need to be cleaned. The last time we did our flock it took my son and I three days. With this piece of equipment we can do them all in a morning.”
Enter Slow Money NC.
Lyle is enamored with all things relating to clean energy, and he was quick to step forward to make Jimmy a loan. The terms are $5000 at low-interest, as is the rule for Slow Money loans made in NC. Jimmy plans to make quarterly payments and get Lyle paid back in just one year. He plans to add another 100 head or so to adequately keep the plants down on this site, and even then it will not be a perfect solution. Sheep like the small young shoots and unless they are really hungry, will pass on much of the taller, woodier weeds.
But it is a move in the right direction. Along the crucial trajectory where we keep lowering our carbon footprint, and finding out of the box solutions that preserve a healthy planet for future generations. I suspect this is just the beginning of Slow Money’s role in funding solar sheep farming.
Thanks go to our good friend and Project Engineer at O2 Energies, Rebekah Hren. She told Jimmy about Slow Money and she told us about Jimmy.
It just goes to show, that yet again, Slow Money isn’t really about the money. It’s about the people. Farmers, lenders, local food processors and vendors, people who will eat locally raised lamb, and of course the hundreds of folks that can now turn on their lights, tapping the boundless energy coming from the sun.