Replicating Agrivoltaics in a Big Way

To responsibly scale solar, we must also be able to replicate agrivoltaics with a commitment to square corners. At Silicon Ranch, that means charting new territory to build a team of in-house experts and a company-owned flock of sheep.

By: Nick de Vries
Date: March 22, 2024

When I first began exploring how Silicon Ranch could implement managed sheep grazing at our Snipesville Solar Ranch, someone assured me that “there are not enough sheep in Georgia to manage a site that size.”

Two and a half years later, at 300MWac spanning 2,600 acres, with eight full-time shepherds and a company-owned flock of more than 1,600 sheep, Silicon Ranch’s Snipesville Solar Ranch is the largest wholly owned and operated agrivoltaics operation in the United States.

But when we set out to build the project, we didn’t do so with the mindset of building the biggest or the first. We were doing what we’ve always done at Silicon Ranch: listening and learning from our partners as well as ourselves and putting that knowledge to work as we continually strive to improve our roles as renewable energy producers, community members, and land stewards, all under our model of long-term ownership.

When we began developing our Regenerative Energy® platform, we did so under the guidance of, and in partnership with, world-renowned regenerative ranchers like Will Harris of White Oak Pastures and Trent Hendricks of Cabriejo Ranch. What these two made clear to me is that there is not one formula to follow when it comes to ranching.

Snipesville Solar Ranch 2023 Agrovoltaics Impacts By the Number Graphic

Different playbooks and strategies

As is the case for solar construction and management, what works in one place may not work in another. Tennessee differs from Georgia, and those two differ vastly from Colorado. Even within these states, there can be countless differences from county to county. In addition to the land, the people are different. We can’t expect every community where we locate a project to have the generational ranching knowledge of someone like Will or Trent or the adaptability of our long-term land maintenance partner, Tyler Menne, necessary for carrying out Regenerative Energy at every single one of our solar projects.

Likewise, every piece of land is unique with different resources such as access to water, and our projects vary in size and a rancher that can regeneratively manage a 10MW farm might not be ready or want to manage a 100MW farm.

To replicate our agrivoltaics platform on different projects from county to county and region to region, requires developing different playbooks and strategies to deploy appropriately in various local contexts.

As the long-term landowners and operators of our projects, we have the responsibility and opportunity to do just that and meet the regenerative land management needs of the solar industry ourselves. This means exploring new and novel ways we can create value—in places where there are no external partners or relevant local expertise to support our efforts—even when that requires growing our own flock of sheep and shepherds to manage them. This long-term approach to solar—owning our projects and the land housing them—combined with the increasingly essential role that Regenerative Energy and managed sheep grazing play in our projects, make owning our own flock to deploy where appropriate and developing our own best practices a natural next step for us in advancing our holistic approach to energy production.

Our Snipesville Solar Ranch is a testament to our commitment to Regenerative Energy. Developed in three phases, this project has more than tripled over the last two and a half years, and so have our self-perform efforts at the site, providing important lessons and opportunities to grow along the way.

Close Up Sheep Herd at the Snipesville Solar Ranch

As crucial as our ranching partners are, while developing this platform it became apparent that to meet the vegetation management needs of this growing industry, we would have to play an active role in growing the U.S. lambing industry ourselves, most notably because the national sheep industry has been dormant for a century. In the first half of the 20th century the national flock consisted of 50 million sheep. Today there are only 5.1 million.

Phase I

Our first lesson was in Phase I of the project, during development of an 80+MWac portion of the solar plant, when we discovered that not all sheep are created equal for every environment.

In the summer of 2021, we launched our utility-scale agrivoltaics technician self-perform program. As part of the program, we hired a shepherd and a 4-Her who had just graduated high school onto our team to manage sheep and implement non-technical maintenance.

We still needed more hands. The person who told me at the start of our journey that there weren’t enough sheep in Georgia to manage our 2,600 acres site was right, and it turns out that along with a diminishing national flock over the past century, there is a corresponding shortage of shepherds. So, in addition to looking for people with traditional farming and shepherding backgrounds, we began looking for agrivoltaic technician candidates with non-traditional farming backgrounds that we would train in shepherding. We contracted a veteran solar construction worker and a truck driver to join the Snipesville Ranch team.

That first summer, this team custom grazed and managed regeneratively a flock of sheep owned by an external ranching partner at the site. We were fortunate to benefit from the guidance of our external partner during this time, and we remain grateful for everything we learned during that first summer. By the fall, the upsides of owning and managing our own flock of sheep had become too clear to ignore, especially with respect to our goal of replicating Regenerative Energy in a place without local ranchers or livestock.

During Phase I, we followed standard procedure in partnership with our external contractor, purchasing the number of sheep necessary to perform vegetation management at the site. We soon learned, however, that when purchasing sheep, it is difficult to know their health and parasitic resistance. This knowledge is important to carrying out regenerative grazing at a geographically remote site, year after year, so we developed a plan to increase our control over the genetics of the sheep taking care of our vegetation and land.

Sheep Grazing Solar Panels at the Snipesville Solar Ranch in Front of Grass and Flower Biodiversity

Currently in the US, most sheep are not bred for regions ideal for solar, which tend to be hot and humid. They are instead bred for cooler climates, making them susceptible to parasites found in regions where we locate many of our projects.

Phase II

As we approached commercial operation on Phase II of the Snipesville Solar Ranch, a 100+MWac installment, we were able to acquire one of the few available regionally appropriate flocks of sheep ourselves to manage our site, an unprecedented undertaking in the U.S. We became the first solar company in the country to own its own flock of sheep, and just like that, the health, wellbeing, and future of 600 sheep was now entirely in our hands. To proceed responsibly in overseeing the management and welfare of our livestock as well as our stewardship of the land they graze, we hired the shepherd from whom we had bought these sheep, who has been deeply involved in development of both the genetics and management practices required to scale sheep production in the Southeast. By the end of our first lambing season, our flock had grown to 1,000 sheep, creating a need to hire more shepherds and agrivoltaic technicians. To meet this need, we began to recruit staff on a larger scale, seeking candidates at agricultural colleges and agriculture career fairs.

and just like that, the health, wellbeing, and future of 600 sheep was now entirely in our hands.

Silicon Ranch’s company-owned flock of sheep on the move to a new paddock at Snipesville Ranch, where the sheep will forage, keeping the grasses from shading the panels while restoring soil health, biodiversity, and clean water.
Silicon Ranch’s company-owned flock of sheep on the move to a new paddock at Snipesville Ranch, where the sheep will forage, keeping the grasses from shading the panels while restoring soil health, biodiversity, and clean water.

Phase III

The final phase of the Snipesville Solar Ranch was a 100+MWac expansion. By the time it was completed, our in-house team had overseen two lambing seasons to grow our flock to a peak of more than 2,000 regionally appropriate sheep, making it one of the largest flocks in the Southeast. The flock consisted of Katahdin, Dorper Rams, and St. Croix breeds and included 400 additional sheep that we carefully selected and acquired that we would later move to our Houston Solar Project, just down the road. We built a new lambing barn at Houston to continue growing our flock responsibly with a dedication to the highest level of animal welfare.

Our breeding efforts have been so promising that we committed to participating in the National Sheep Improvement Program, which provides predictable, economically important genetic evaluation information to the U.S. sheep industry to improve the genetics and production of the national flock.  

Over this period, we likewise grew our team of in-house shepherds to manage Snipesville Solar Ranch from two to eight agrivoltaics technicians. We expanded our operations to incorporate onsite haying, giving local farmers access to hay the perimeter of the site and then turning around and purchasing that hay to supplement both our flock’s diet in the off season and local agricultural revenues.

Silicon Ranch lambs born in the 2023 lambing season thrive in the new nursery that includes a state-of-the-art German milk machine
Silicon Ranch lambs born in the 2023 lambing season thrive in the new nursery that includes a state-of-the-art milk machine
Agrivoltaic technician Jackson Yawn hand feeding one of the 850 newborn lambs that joined the Silicon Ranch flock during the 2023 lambing season
This past laming season, our in-house team welcomed 835 newborn lambs to our flock. Pictured here is Agrivoltaics technician, Jackson Yawn—‘Mama Yawn’—bottle-feeding one of our newborn lambs.

Not just dual-use, but dual-value

For agrivoltaics to make sense, these efforts must bring value to a project and not be a cost sink. If this isn’t the case, our industry won’t deploy agrivoltaics meaningfully. Through Regenerative Energy, carried out by our ranching partners and our self-perform program, we are already seeing the added value in these mixed efforts, and we haven’t even fully tapped into selling lamb meat and byproducts.

Our sites that use conventional vegetation management measures mow as many as five times a year, which is two to three times more than the amount of mowing carried out at our self-perform—regeneratively grazed sites. As a result, these self-perform sites reduce mechanical and fuel costs. Simultaneously, our self-perform agrivoltaics program is increasing production and improving the quality of both our flocks and the national flock.

By doing this ourselves, not only are we able to carry out managed grazing in regions where we don’t have access to an external partner to do so, but we are also able to receive the most value out of this process, in a way that would not be possible through outsourcing.

Agrivoltaic technicians Lem Miller and Jackson Yawn, both of whom grew up just a couple of miles from Snipesville Ranch, setting up adaptive managed grazing paddocks at the project
Agrivoltaic technicians setting up adaptive managed grazing paddocks at the project

At Snipesville we are seeing everything first-hand, including the benefits and trade-offs of various approaches. As a result, we can make better informed decisions to innovate and set new standards for what agrivoltaics can offer for our industry, our partners, and the communities where we locate these projects.

The realization of our initial vision of the Snipesville Solar Ranch was two and a half years in the making. Over this period, we more than tripled the size of the site, our flock managing the vegetation, and our team of in-house shepherds responsible for growing and managing that flock.

Continuing to build our team of in-house agrivoltaic technicians and our in-house flock will enable us to replicate what we are doing at our Snipesville Solar Ranch on other sites of all sizes across the country, and do so in a regenerative, humane, and responsible manner.

To be clear, we aren’t doing this at the cost of our existing and growing network of ranching partners—this is not an “either or”. It’s an “and”. As we continue to build our own process and self-perform team, we are likewise working to expand our partners’ operations with the same purpose in mind.

Our Regenerative Energy ranching partners provide invaluable knowledge and help us push the limits and rethink what solar can be. To ensure that agrivoltaics platforms like Regenerative Energy can be replicated from site to site across various regions and meet the growing needs of this industry ultimately falls on the people who build, own, and operate these projects. We can do so by building our in-house personal expertise, while empowering our ranching partners to be better equipped to meet the solar industry’s growing needs for their services and expertise.

The programs that make up our Regenerative Energy platform are the culmination of our dedication to listening, learning, and responding to build meaningful partnerships and support stronger, healthier, and more resilient communities.

Students at the Snipesville Solar Ranch
Students learning about Silicon Ranch’s agrivoltaics program at the Snipesville Solar Ranch
Silicon ranch Logo and Regenerative Energy Logo

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