Like many farmers, Chris Moore once doubted the practicality of solar panels and agriculture co-existing on the same land. He couldn’t quite believe the land would be productive while shaded by these large, metallic shields.
Moore was born and raised with sheep. His family dabbled in cattle and grain farming, but the sheep were a constant.
In the 1960s, his grandparents bought 100 acres of land in Kinburn, Ont., a small community near Arnprior, about a 40-minute drive west of Ottawa. Moore inherited the land and now runs Shady Creek Lamb Co. on it with his partner Lyndsey Smith.
About 12 years ago, a 200-acre solar farm sprung up in Arnprior and he passed it by on his daily commute. The more he looked at the grass growing beside and beneath the solar panels, the more it started to seem an ideal spot for a sheep pasture. His skepticism began to fade.
The Arnprior Solar Project is one of the largest solar electricity sites in Canada, generating enough energy to supply about 7,000 homes. And for the past five years, it has also doubled as a summer home for hundreds of the couples’ ewes.
It took Moore a long time to picture his sheep grazing in the shade of those solar panels. Ontario environmental regulations, farmers associations and farmers have, historically, been resistant to allowing land to be used for both agricultural and solar power.
But Joshua Pearce, Western University’s John M. Thompson Chair in Information Technology and Innovation, was convinced that without a crop or animals, the shade of those solar panels was a missed opportunity.
Pearce is an advocate and expert in the field of agrivoltaics — the dual use of land for solar electricity and agriculture.
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The most basic version of this practice is introducing animals, such as a flock of sheep, into a field of fixed solar panels. “That's kind of like agrivoltaics lite,” Pearce said.
More advanced versions tailor solar systems to benefit crops living beneath them, such as chiltepin peppers that do well with dappled light.
“You shade the plant that you're growing with a partially transparent solar cell. It provides a little microclimate underneath it, so it conserves water, and then you get more growth,” Pearce explained.
Vertical or movable solar panel options allow for plants like corn or wheat to grow high or for tractors to manoeuvre around crops, Pearce added. Outside of fields, solar panels can also be attached to greenhouses roofs or potentially even floated on bodies of water.
In other parts of the world, including the United States, the use of agrivoltaics has been successful and encouraged further research. However, Ontario’s restrictive regulations governing farmland initially stunted this budding agriculture-energy revolution, Pearce wrote in a report titled Agrivoltaics in Ontario Canada: Promise and Policy.
Ontario’s Greenbelt Act makes it very difficult to put up a solar panel in the Greenbelt, an area of land in southern Ontario that is permanently protected under the act, he said. In the 2020 Provincial Policy Statement, the guiding document for all Greenbelt planning, the provincial government states ground-mounted solar panels are only permitted in agricultural areas if they are an “on-farm diversified use.” This means they must be secondary, not equal, to the land’s agricultural use in terms of time and space.
It would be a bad idea to take away valuable topsoil to build a solar farm, Pearce said.
“But if you can put up the solar panels, still grow crops, get possibly even more crops than you started with and all the electricity, like what are we doing? The law just hasn't caught up with the technology.”
The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), an advocacy organization for Ontario farmers, has a similar agriculture-first stance on integrating large-scale solar. It encourages small-scale solar below 10 kilowatts, but opposes large projects like Arnprior, which operates at 23,400 kilowatts.
“Large-scale solar on good farmland will not produce any more power than if it were located on rooftops or rocks and it will reduce farm production needlessly,” the OFA stated in a 2019 post on its website. Canada’s National Observer attempted to contact the OFA to see if its policy has changed, but the group did not respond.
Government policy and the OFA’s stance are a few of the many things that need to change for agrivoltaics to succeed in Ontario, according to Pearce. Agrivoltaics infrastructure also needs to feel accessible to farmers, he added. It can take a long time to convince a farmer that agriculture and photovoltaics mix.
“Farmers aren’t going to change how they're doing their work fundamentally.” Pearce said. “We need to make systems that can work well for riding a tractor through.”
For the Moore and Smith, it took years to come around to the idea.
“We saw [solar panels] as taking up farmland and we didn't want to see farmland taken out of food production,” Smith said.
But in early 2017, when they decided they both wanted to farm full-time, Smith said they faced two challenges: not enough sheep and not enough land.
After hearing about a farm in southern Ontario where solar and sheep were sharing space, Moore's mind jumped to the Arnprior project next door.
“I literally Googled the company, like, ‘Who runs the site at Arnprior?’” Smith said.
When EDF Renewables popped up in her browser, she got in touch.
“I, quite literally, cold-called them and said, ‘We farm just around the corner and we have this idea,'” she said.
Moore and Smith partnered with EDF Renewables in the fall of 2017, putting 50 ewes in a field of solar panels. This year, they had 350 ewes, with plans to grow until they stabilize at about 800 ewes, Lyndsey said. Shady Creek Lamb Co. is now one of at least seven solar-grazing sheep farms that she’s aware of in Ontario.
All are outside the Greenbelt. “We have done a complete 180 to the point where we're like, everywhere there are solar panels there should be sheep,” she said.
Now, the couple takes every opportunity to share their experience by touring fellow farmers around their agrivoltaics operation.
From a bird’s-eye view, the Arnprior Solar Project’s acreage appears almost extraterrestrial, as if someone cut out a chunk of the soil and replaced it with a shiny, metallic implant.
But on the ground, it’s obvious this isn’t the case. Species like timothy grass, red canary grass, red clover, lamb’s quarters, stinging nettle, bull thistle and burdock all thrive beneath the panel’s protective coverage. Shaded from extreme heat, the panels help the plants conserve water, stay greener for longer and provide nourishment to the bees on site.
“We find praying mantis and all sorts of spiders, usually on our helmets,” she said. “It's pretty remarkable just how much life is underneath all these panels.”
Their relationship with EDF Renewables is symbiotic. Smith and Moore are responsible for making sure the sheep eat all the tall or climbing plants that could cover the solar panels. They get paid by EDF Renewables to do this and in return, their sheep have a safe pasture to live, graze on nutritious feed and birth their babies in the spring.
Pearce said he hopes farmers will consider installing solar systems on their farms to generate additional income and green energy.
“They could be using electricity on the farm themselves, electrifying their vehicles, even making nitrogen fertilizer on the farm,” he said.
To prove to policymakers and farmers in Ontario that agrivoltaics is worth investing in, Pearce and his colleagues at Western University are embarking on a seminal research project this summer.
Beginning with 10 different solar systems, Pearce plans to try it all. From floating aquavoltaics to installing panels in fences, his team aims to develop a database of how sustainable various forms of agrivoltaics could be in Ontario.
Each system will generate five to 15 kilowatts of power, about what it takes to power an average house in Canada, Pearce said. Systems of this size will be just large enough to earn the industry’s respect, but not so large as to be economically prohibitive, he explained.
“If one person publishes a good data set, that suddenly opens it up for everybody else to start moving in,” Pearce said.
But convincing farmers agrivoltaics can work for them still remains an obstacle, Smith said.
“We feel very strongly that it is well within our grasp to do a better job of … taking care of our environment,” she said. “Although it requires change, they are not monumental, unattainable changes, they are things that are in front of us that we can do.”