More than 2,000 merino sheep are now grazing across the New England Solar Stage 1 site, enjoying the shelter from the sun and rain under the solar panels.
The 720 MW New England Solar project is being developed by ACEN Australia across 2,000 hectares of cleared grazing land leased from local landholders. It will provide enough clean renewable power for around 300,000 homes.
Construction of the first 400 MW (520MW DC) stage, including the installation of around a million solar panels, was completed recently, making it one of the largest operating solar PV generators in Australia. It just hit peak 400MW generation a few days ago – just in time for the re-release of sheep back on site.
The practice of sheep and solar farms coexisting is known as solar grazing, with a number of trials both in Australia and overseas showing that solar panels improve the local conditions through shade and moisture and hence leads to better pasture.
Robyn Doyle is a Workplace Health and Safety Adviser at New England Solar, and she has been tasked with overseeing the release of sheep across the solar farm site.
“The sheep are on site for about six weeks at a time and they have made themselves perfectly at home,” she said.
“The panels rotate as they track the sun and this balance between light and shade is great for new grass growth. It’s just heaven for hungry sheep.
“The panels offer shade from the hot sun and rain for the sheep and protection from aerial predators for their young lambs.
Robyn grew up on a large sheep farm in western NSW, learning shearing as a teenager. She is happy to be blending her new career on the solar farm, with her old love of sheep farming.
“It just seems like a really good match – the sheep stay protected and well fed, and they help reduce vegetation and fire risks on site,” Ms Doyle said.
Drinking water for the sheep is provided by natural dams on part of the site, while in other locations pipes bring water to site from bores on neighbouring farms.
The sheep generally look after themselves, and its suspected ewes have given birth to young lambs under the panels on at least two occasions.
There are plans to introduce more sheep on site from other landholders, taking the solar grazing mob to more than 6,000 sheep in total.
ACEN Australia Managing Director David Pollington said the New England Solar project was now generating clean renewable energy into the National Electricity Market.
“From the first day, the local community, businesses and our First Nations partners have supported and guided us on this project,” Mr Pollington said.
“It started with our development and approvals more than six years ago and continued through to construction and now into operations.
“It’s a great sight to now see agriculture co-existing with renewable energy in such a positive way.
“The project will provide enough clean renewable energy to power around 300,000 homes, but it’s also providing a really productive space where sheep can graze, protected from the harsh elements, particularly during hot conditions.”
“We’re extremely pleased to celebrate another important milestone for the project, the farming community and the energy transition underway across the country.”
New England Solar Stage 2 includes a 320 MW solar development and a 200 MW two hour battery storage system will begin construction in 2024.