NEWFIELD, N.Y. — As solar panels in the 30-acre array off of Millard Hill Road in Newfield soaked up Tuesday morning’s sunshine, a new kind of maintenance crew was headed out to work: a flock of about 45 sheep. Though timid about getting out of their trailer and exploring the new surroundings at first — it was their first time leaving their home farm in Enfield — the lambs quickly got to work munching down on the tall grass, clovers, forbs, and other greenery sprouting up between the panels.
The solar panels in Newfield were Nexamp’s first community solar project in New York and officially went online last year. According to the company, which has been around about 10 years, the array in Newfield contains more than 23,000 solar panels and they serve about 700 NYSEG customers locally, including 150 in Newfield.
Keith Hevenor, communication manager for Nexamp, said bringing sheep to solar arrays is a “win-win-win situation.” He said it’s cheaper for the company to use sheep for maintenance instead of paying for people to mow and maintain 30 acres during the warmer months. He said it’s also a greener solution than bringing in gas-powered landscaping equipment and also safer for the solar equipment. Finally, from the perspective of the sheep farmers, it’s a good additional source of income — and a good source of food for the sheep.
As solar farms have been expanding, so have partnerships with sheep farmers because sheep are so well-suited for the task. Unlike goats who will munch on almost anything, sheep stick to grazing on the greenery and not harm any wires or solar equipment.
The sheep that were grazing Tuesday are owned by Lexie Hain, of Two Mothers Farm in Enfield. She is also a founding member of the American Solar Grazing Association, a group of sheep farmers that promote grazing sheep on solar installations. She was joined by fellow ASGA member Lewis Fox, of Fox Farms in Cortland.
“There’s a lot of interest in this because I think this is the best way to maintain a solar site,” said Fox. “(Sheep) do the best job of maintaining the vegetation. It’s a great relationship I think for them and for us. It’s a great second income stream for us. They can save money on their vegetation maintenance by using sheep and everybody wins.”
Fox, who has a flock of about 200 sheep in Cortland, said he has sheep grazing different sites in New York. This year, he said his sheep are grazing between 100 and 120 acres of solar panels.
Despite Ithaca being more cloudy than not throughout the year, Hevenor said solar panels can still generate a lot of power. The solar array in Newfield is one of Nexamp’s largest facilities in New York, generating about 7.5 megawatts of power.
“You’d think if there’s not enough sun, you’re not going to get enough energy but the efficiency of today’s solar panels really makes it easy to capture enough energy … averaged out over time, average sunshine. Even in Upstate New York, there’s enough sun generated. It doesn’t have to be direct sun. Even a little bit of cloud cover, there is sunlight getting through,” Hevenor said.
In another week, more sheep will join the flock and bring the total number closer to 90 sheep. Until about October, the solar farm will be their home. The sheep farmers will herd them, and provide water and minerals, but the solar panels will offer plenty of shelter and shade for the season.
All images by Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice.