Solar panels could make cattle pastures more profitable – Eurasian review

Researchers at West Virginia University are shedding light on the benefits of solar panels on small cattle operations with support from $1.6 million from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Matt Wilson, professor of animal science in the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design and founder of the Alliance for Regenerative Livestock, said the panels could generate solar energy on pastures and establish more sustainable cattle farming practices.

Wilson, who is leading the research, will use dual-use solar energy – also known as agrivoltaics – which looks at ways to combine solar panels with agricultural uses such as crop production, animal husbandry and pollinator habitats.

As part of the collaboration with Appalachian Renewable Power, the university will study the soil, grasses and cattle around the solar systems, and ARP will handle the design and installation.

The grant is part of a $71 million DOE investment – ​​including $16 million from the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by the Biden administration – to expand a network of domestic solar producers.

Currently, 68% of agricultural producers in West Virginia earn off-farm income because they are unable to support themselves solely by farming. Wilson said technologies like solar energy will help diversify the farm’s income stream. Moreover, the idea of ​​new and greener technologies may appeal to younger generations, as the average age of agricultural producers in West Virginia is around 70.

“Young people don’t want to work in agriculture because they think it’s backbreaking work and low technology,” Wilson said. “However, there are opportunities for a high-tech, multi-revenue stream and complex activities that can be undertaken to make a living in agriculture.”

West Virginia receives abundant rainfall, which benefits cattle on grasslands, but the state’s topography is not conducive to row crops. However, livestock can graze on the slopes of hills and mountains, where renewable energy is also produced.

But Wilson said the idea is not without its detractors.

“One of the biggest obstacles that renewable energy is starting to face is that everyone wants all their energy to be renewable, but they don’t want to see windmills. They don’t want to see solar panels. They definitely don’t want to build panels that will displace agriculture,” he said.

Despite these common objections, solar developers prefer agricultural land because there is no need to remediate environmental problems.

“From a cost standpoint, if I’m a solar developer, I want to choose a place where I don’t have to worry about legacy chemicals,” Wilson said. “We tried to get into agrivoltaics. If we could design the source system to be on a high-quality pasture that both raises calves and produces energy on the same acreage, instead of changing goals, you now have a dual purpose.”

Wilson’s main research focused on improving the sustainability of the beef industry by breeding stronger animals that use fewer resources. Over the past two decades, he has developed a system for measuring feed and water consumption and productivity of beef cattle herds, and will use it to study animals grazing under solar panels.

He proposed installing both traditional flat panels and double-sided photovoltaic cells connected by a grid. The latter would prevent water runoff that could affect soil hydrology.

“That’s our main goal with this project,” he said. “Install some solar power and then analyze how the animals fare in this scenario under the panels. Then we can start making recommendations to manufacturers if they are interested.”

Ember Morrissey, associate professor of environmental microbiology, is researching the potential impacts of dual-use solar energy on soil health and is involved in the project.

“My team will collect and analyze soil samples from pastures using novel agrivoltaic panels, as well as from traditional pastures,” she said. “This will allow us to determine whether incorporating solar panels into pasture ecosystems can change soil health.”

Setting policy for the future will also be key. Electricity producers do not receive remuneration for production. Wilson envisions an agricultural exemption that would allow farmers to receive compensation for solar energy. But questions remain because the systems would generate more energy than the farm would need.

“I started talking to engineering professors and other places about what we could do,” he said. “Can we convert some of this into electrolysis to make hydrogen or other things?”