China: solar panels turn desert into sheep grazing land

As China accelerates its shift toward clean energy, a photovoltaic power generation park has been built in the northwest of China’s Qinghai Province. Desertification used to mean animal husbandry was unsustainable in this part of China a decade ago. But now, people and their animals are returning.

Some of the world’s largest solar farms, located in the desert in Qinghai Province in north-western China, have embraced an age-old method of keeping the weeds down without harming the environment: herds of voracious sheep.

 Solar modules at a photovoltaic power industrial park in Golmud City, northwest China’s Qinghai Province.
Chinese Solar Farms Seek Sheep to Keep Weeds Neat
“The grass in the park is great. Grazing there enables sheep to fatten well and grow bigger,” said a local herdsman.

Looking at a planned total area of just over 609 square kilometres, writes CGTN, the engineers at the Haikuo Photovoltaic Power Station in China’s Qinghai province knew that weeds were going to be a problem for the solar farm, causing shade-induced “hot spots” that could lead to malfunction or feed wildfires.  

Anxious to avoid both the environmental costs of spraying herbicide and the financial costs of manual weeding, the engineers turned to one of the world’s best mowers on four legs.

“We used to remove weeds twice a year. But now with sheep, we only need to do it once a year, which can also help us save costs,” said, Zhang Wenhai, a maintenance engineer at the power station. The woolly weed-whackers are highly efficient as they munch their way around the farm, and weeds are very much on a sheep’s menu (unlike cows, which prefer grass, or goats, which are more pruners than grazers). 

“It’s relaxing to graze sheep there because I don’t have to follow them,” said the herdsman.

Coupling sheep with the contained solar farms offers the added boon of increasing incomes for sheep herders while reducing the effort they have to put into their jobs. Noting that his sheep are bigger and fatter now that they are grazing on the solar farm, and therefore sell at higher prices, a local herdsman told CGTN that “it’s also relaxing to graze sheep there because I don’t have to follow them.”

This conjunction between sheep and solar follows with the rewards of “reduced fire risk, heightened community acceptance, and a shot at spectacular cost savings.”

Sources:

Energy Mix, 11 June 2021 https://www.theenergymix.com/2021/06/11/chinese-solar-farms-seek-sheep-to-keep-weeds-neat/

CGTN, 30 May 2021 https://news.cgtn.com/news/2021-05-30/World-s-largest-solar-power-station-uses-sheep-to-control-weeds-10GhuGsLt28/index.html

Watch video:

See from space how solar panels have brightened the lives of the residents of Gonghe County, Qinghai.