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High tech meets low tech at Furman solar farm

sheep solar panels
New residents at Furman's solar farm look to tackle a growing problem.

When Furman’s six-acre, $1.7 million solar farm was installed off Poinsett Highway last year, the project turned heads. But it’s likely to get even more attention now that 12 St. Croix sheep have moved in and will be calling the solar farm home for the foreseeable future.

In an effort to reduce the cost of mowing under the 2,994 solar panels and to lower gas emissions, Furman partnered with local sheep owner Steve Wood to see if four ewes and their eight lambs could help solve the problem—a marriage of low and high tech and a win-win proposition as the sheep need shelter and a place to graze.

Local sheep owner Steve Wood with new tenants of Furman solar farm.

It was Wood, a regular member at Furman’s Physical Activities Center, who approached Jeff Redderson, Furman’s assistant vice president of facilities and campus services, with the idea. Redderson then took the idea to Furman’s Shi Center for Sustainability to see if it might work.

May 25 was the first day of summer camp for the hornless St. Croix sheep, known for their white hair, long slender muzzles and gentle nature. Laura Bain, Furman’s associate director of sustainability assessment, explains that a riding mower suffices for maintaining the grass around the solar panel perimeter, but the hard-to-reach areas under the panels must be mowed by hand and is therefore more time consuming and expensive. Plus, riding mowers have the potential to damage the panels.

Bain says the sheep project is very much in an experimental phase as she and Wood tease out the optimum number of sheep needed to maintain the acreage. Said Bain, “The babies don’t eat much grass now since they are still nursing.”

Unweaned resident lambs at Furman’s solar farm aren’t eating a lot of grass now, but they are part of the plan to curb grass growth under the panels.

Wood is working with Furman to set up the property with solar-powered electric fencing to guide the sheep’s grazing patterns to areas where it is most needed—under the panels. So for now, there is a mix of mowing and grazing at the farm.

Bain says the practice of using sheep in this manner is not new, but she believes Furman’s solar farm is the only one in South Carolina using sheep for grass maintenance. Incidentally, the use of goats isn’t an option as they have the potential to damage panels by jumping on them, or even consuming parts of the panels themselves.

Bain said as the project continues, she would like to get students and faculty involved in the puzzle of determining the amount of forage at the solar farm available for grazing animals. The question touches multiple disciplines, including biology, agriculture, sustainability, environmental sciences and mathematics, which is fertile ground for industrious Furman researchers.

She looks forward to proving the model works and sharing a project that combines renewal energy production with agriculture. On a personal note, Bain says, “I’m excited about it. It’s not something I ever anticipated working on, but it has been a blast.”

For more information, contact Laura Bain at 864-294-3656 and laura.bain@furman.edu.

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