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Pairing sun, sheep

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    Tin Roof Ranch owners Luann Casey and Gary Gunder of the North Shore are pushing for a bill in the Legislature that would increase the percentage of agricultural land that could be used for ground-mounted solar panels.
    A bill being considered by the Legislature would give farmers a break on the lease rent for land on which they farm. If it passes, it would create an opportunity for ranches like Tin Roof Ranch to add more sheep to its 20-sheep flock.
    Sheep graze under and around solar panels at Omao Ranch Lands on Kauai. Ranch owner Daryl Kaneshiro says the dual use of the agricultural land makes his ranching operations more viable by allowing him to diversify his revenue sources

The grass-fed lamb Luann Casey and her husband Gary Gunder raise at their North Shore ranch is so popular in local butcher shops and restaurants that they can’t keep up with demand.

Production is limited by the size of their seven-acre operation, which is home to 20 sheep, 500 to 600 chickens and a tropical fruit orchard. Casey said they would like to increase the number of sheep at the Tin Roof Ranch, but are limited by the amount of land available for grazing.

"With 20 sheep we’ve got to keep them moving around. We can’t have much more than that," Casey said.

Meanwhile, the developers of major, utility-scale solar energy projects in Hawaii are running into limitations because of restrictions on the use of agricultural land.

Putting the two together may provide a solution. If the sheep were to graze on grass growing beneath and around the solar panels, the developers could use ag land for their solar farms.

The state Legislature is considering two bills that would increase the amount of solar energy that could be developed on ag land with the condition that the developers provide incentives to farmers and ranchers to also use the land.

"The solar energy operation could help subsidize the sheep farming operation, including lease rent, fencing and water production, making farming more cost-effective for the farmer," Casey said.

A beneficiary of the legislation would be the First Wind Solar Group, which is proposing several utility-scale solar energy projects on Oahu ag land.

"The combined use could provide local residents with both lower-cost clean energy and locally raised agricultural products," said Crystal Kua, director of external affairs for First Wind Solar, which is seeking to build a 50-megawatt project on 327 acres in the Kawailoa area above Haleiwa and a 47-megawatt facility on 228 acres near Waiawa. First Wind Solar would not be able to build the facilities under the current rules for ag land.

If the projects are allowed to proceed, First Wind Solar would provide the pasture land, fencing and roads that a farmer or rancher would need to make use of the land, Kua said.

An added benefit to having sheep graze under the solar panels is keeping weeds down.

"Sheep grazing could provide a sustainable way to manage vegetation, keeping the grass and weeds from shading the solar panels," Kua said in written testimony to the Legislature.

Allowing sheep to graze under and around ground-mounted solar panels has already proven successful on Kauai, where Omao Ranch Lands owner Daryl Kaneshiro has installed a 500 kilowatt photovoltaic system on two acres of land to help diversify his income.

Kaneshiro, who also raises cattle and goats, said the size and disposition of his sheep made them the most compatible with the solar project.

The sheep, which average about 2 1/2 feet tall, can easily fit under the solar panels, which are about 3 feet tall.

"At one time we had to go under the panels with a weed eater. Now we have the sheep do that," Kaneshiro said.

Designated agriculture lands in Hawaii are classified on a five-point scale that runs from "A" through "E" with "A" being the most productive land and "E" the least.

Hawaii law restricts the development of solar projects on "B" and "C" land to 10 percent of the parcel or 20 acres of land, whichever is less. No solar development is allowed on land with an "A" productivity rating. There are no limits on solar development on lands with "D" and "E" ratings.

The legislation making its way through the House and Senate would boost the amount of agricultural land with "B" and "C" productivity ratings that could be used for solar energy development subject to certain conditions, including making the land available for compatible agricultural activities at a lease rate that is at least 50 percent below the fair market rate for comparable properties.

In addition to making the agricultural land available to farmers and ranchers at a discount, the developer of a solar project on "B" or "C" agricultural land would have to apply for and receive a special use permit to exceed the limit, according to the Senate version of the bill, SB 2658, which crossed over to the House and was unanimously approved by the House Agriculture Committee on Thursday.

The bill has received wide-ranging support from solar energy developers, ranchers, the Hawaii Farm Bureau, the Blue Planet Foundation, the Hawaii Renewable Energy Alliance and the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

Scott Enright, chairman of the state Board of Agriculture, testified that while that the Department of Agriculture supports the dual-use concept for agriculture land, the agency would prefer that lesser quality lands be used for solar projects.

About 75 percent of the state’s 1.9 million acres of agricultural land has "D" or "E" productivity ratings, Enright said.

"We strongly believe that these poorer-quality agricultural lands be considered first for siting solar energy facilities," Enright said in written testimony. "On the other hand, B’ and C’ rated agricultural lands comprise 21 percent of Hawaii’s agricultural lands, have fair to good capacity for intensive agricultural production and are more likely to be considered and designated as important agricultural lands," Enright wrote.

Several developers have begun doing community outreach to provide details on their plans to sell solar power to Hawaiian Electric Co. The utility is working with developers of nine projects scattered around Oahu with 240 megawatts of generating capacity. The projects would require an estimated 1,200 acres of land.

Concerns about expanding the of agricultural land for solar energy development have surfaced at several Neighborhood Board meetings during presentations by developers of utility-scale PV projects.

Representatives from Next Era Energy and Eurus Energy America have briefed both the Nanakuli-Maili Neighborhood Board and the Waianae Coast Neighborhood Board in recent months on their plans.

James Manaku, a member of the Nanakuli-Maili Neighborhood Board, said the expansion of other activities on agricultural land raises food security issues for the state.

"While I agree that we need more cheaper sources of electricity, I’d like to point out that it’s much more important to grow things," Manaku said. "Because if we look at future generations, the way things are going now, we’re going to be completely dependent on the outside world for food," he said.

"The bottom line is we cannot put electricity in our mouths. On all of our agriculture lands it’s more important to grow food on it than to put anything else."

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