Michael Dennett, owner of Crescent Run Farm in Jefferson, with some of his sheep that have been hired to maintain the grass at a solar energy facility on Civic Center Drive in Augusta. Dennett, seen Oct. 17, 2023, has long been a supporter of dual-use solar development, also known as agrivoltaics. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Right now, when the days are short and the fields are frozen or covered with snow, Michael Dennett’s sheep are on what he calls a gestation vacation.

Last October, as he was standing in a field just off Civic Center Drive watching his sheep graze, picking their way around arrays of ground-mounted solar panels, the flock still had about two more weeks left of work before making the seasonal transition to breeding.

“The idea that I watch sheep eat grass and they get paid to eat grass is pretty remarkable,” he said recently. “Because they’ll do it for free, but I figured out a way to make money doing it.”

Dennett and his sheep are pioneers in agrivoltaics, the practice of combining agriculture with solar energy generation, and this is the time of year he spends crunching numbers and planning for the year ahead.

It might be a good year.

Michael Dennett’s sheep graze between rows of panels on Oct. 17 in a solar energy facility on Civic Center Drive in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Longroad Energy, the owner of the Augusta solar array where some of Dennett’s sheep grazed last fall, is considering its options for vegetation control across the five solar sites it currently operates in Maine as well as a sixth that’s now under development on 931 acres of land in Unity Township, Benton and Clinton.


Deron Lawrence, director of natural resources permitting and policy at Longroad Energy, said the Augusta site is its first in Maine where sheep have been introduced.

“We did it as a pilot study to learn from what works and what doesn’t work, and how we calibrate with the intention of (bringing) more sheep on more sites (this coming) year,” Lawrence said recently.

Michael Dennett’s sheep graze between rows of panels on Oct. 17 in a solar energy facility on Civic Center Drive in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Grazing is not the only agricultural use that can coexist with solar energy generation. Longroad Energy has a fully permitted agrivoltaic site now under development on Oahu in Hawaii that includes more than 600 acres that will be made available to farmers to grow their own crops.

And in Maine, a project launched in 2021 installed solar panels on about 12 acres of wild blueberry fields in Rockport to test how well blueberries and solar panels can coexist.

The convergence of agriculture and renewable energy production did not happen in Maine by accident. The state’s farmland has many attributes that make it attractive for solar development.

Because preserving productive agricultural land, ensuring food security and promoting the growth of renewable energy are goals in the state’s climate action plan, the state convened a stakeholder group in 2021 to develop a series of recommendations. They included creating a dual-use pilot program as well as creating a central clearinghouse for information and offering planning help to cities and towns to balance solar development.


At the same time, Dennett had been watching and learning from farmers who had solar grazing operations in Massachusetts and New York and decided to pursue that just as Maine started to embrace the concept.

For him, it’s a business decision. Contracting out the sheep allows Dennett — whose full-time job is teaching at Gardiner Regional Middle School — to be a farmer without carrying the expense of a costly farm.

While he declined to say what his price is, a survey of solar grazers in upstate New York showed that charges for grazing ranged between $300 and $500 per acre per year, which he characterized as a pretty representative number.

Michael Dennett’s sheep graze between rows of panels on Oct. 17 in a solar energy facility on Civic Center Drive in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“There’s a lot of pressure to be competitive with mowing costs,” Dennett said. “Those numbers are hard to figure out because people hold on to those pretty tightly.”

In Maine, the current cost is estimated to be $400 per acre per year.

Having sheep grazing on solar arrays offers some intangible benefits whose value can be hard to measure, Dennett said. One is the public relations value of showing how agriculture can be preserved with renewable energy development, and another is the additional security that comes with a shepherd visiting the site regularly to check on the sheep and observe any problems.


“In my opinion, if you’re going to put solar on agricultural land, there needs to be a good-faith effort to incorporate some dual-use or agrivoltaics,” Dennett said. “I’m not saying it’s going to be possible, but in order for it to be sustainable, there has to be some level of food production.”

For solar companies like Longroad Energy, solar grazing is also a business consideration.

Chad Allen, Longroad Energy director of development, answers questions Oct. 17 at the company’s solar energy facility on Civic Center Drive in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal 

Lawrence said the market for land is highly competitive, and any extra cost can make a big difference in the price at which energy can be sold.

New developments of any kind require stormwater control measures, and the plantings that occur where solar arrays are installed help limit erosion or runoff. While many companies try to choose native plants that are low-growing, they still need to be mowed, either by mechanical mowers or natural mowers, and both incur costs.

Agrivoltaics can also bring some insurance and liability risks, Lawrence said. Solar arrays are power plants with high-voltage electric lines, so care has to be taken not to bring in equipment that will damage the panels. There are also safety concerns with someone bringing in water for livestock.

Lawrence said his company is committed to trying to lead the industry in adding agricultural and ecological benefits to its projects.


Longroad Energy officials are expected to decide sometime in the coming weeks whether sheep grazing will be more widely deployed across its solar properties.

In Jefferson, where Dennett and his family live, they have been spending the recent stormy weekends on bookkeeping and a backend analysis of his grazing operation while making plans for the coming year.

This is his third year solar grazing, and he’s been the only one doing it. He’s been grazing 115 sheep and is contracted to add 95. This year, he’s continuing to build his flock and expects to have more after lambing season when grazing starts in the spring.

“I had a pretty good year. It was profitable,” he said. “Whether or not it’s scalable to full-time work remains to be seen. Part of that is that every January I find myself negotiating contracts and waiting for people to make decisions. I am not going to risk it all on one- or two-year contracts.”

But as the industry matures and public pressure mounts to preserve agricultural operations while continuing renewable energy development, this enterprise is on track to become more sustainable and secure.

Michael Dennett’s sheep graze between rows of panels on Oct. 17 in a solar energy facility on Civic Center Drive in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

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