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Solar farm trial shows improved fleece on merino sheep grazed under panels

Tom Warren lets his sheep run between the solar panels. (ABC Rural: Hannah Jose)

Sheep grazing under solar panels at farms in NSW's Central West have produced better wool and more of it in the four years since the projects began, according to growers.

Local graziers have labelled the set-up a "complete win-win", with the sheep helping to keep grass and weeds down so as not to obscure the panels.

In turn, the panels provided shade for the sheep and grass, and helped prevent the soil from drying out.

Wool broker Graeme Ostini, who has been grazing merino wethers at a solar farm near Parkes in a trial with the Parkes Show Society, said he had seen the benefits of running the animals under panels.

He said his sheep were slightly lighter stocked than the average in the district but were cutting an "amazing" amount of wool.

Mr Warren's sheep were able to graze almost all through the drought years thanks to condensation from the panels. (Supplied: Tom Warren)

He said he credited the good season and the solar panels for the improvement.

Carrying capacity increase of 25pc

While Mr Ostini's sheep were lighter stocked than average, Dubbo farmer and grazier Tom Warren's were slightly higher. 

Mr Warren leases part of his land to a solar farm and runs about 250 merino ewes and wethers on 54 hectares among the panels.

Like Mr Ostini, Mr Warren also reported impressive results. 

He has not noticed an increase in wool quantity but said the quality had improved.

"It'll be because of the conditions the sheep are living in," he said.

The solar panels use sun-tracking technology to move with the sun. (ABC Rural: Hannah Jose)

Mr Warren said the carrying capacity of the land had also increased by about 25 per cent.

During the drought, water condensed on the solar panels in the mornings. The trickling of the water to the grass below keep strips of pasture green. 

In all, he said by leasing his land to the solar farm and grazing his sheep there, his income had increased.

More research, more studies

Energy policy and landholder rights researcher Madeline Taylor said the area needed more research and, crucially, more funding for pilot projects.

"We're starting to get a really good database of studies showing how the co-location of agriculture and photovoltaics can be done successfully," Dr Taylor said.

Dr Taylor said there would be benefits to having more large-scale studies.

Condensation forms at the edges of solar panels at Tom Warren's farm. (ABC Rural: Hannah Jose)

Sceptics urge caution

Earlier this year, a review into the issues and opportunities arising from the growth of the renewable energy and agriculture sectors was commissioned by the NSW government.

NSW Energy Minister Matt Kean said he "would consider any opportunities to improve existing frameworks, such as a coexistence of solar and wind with farming".

There have been 100 submissions made to the review and the final report is due at the end of the year.

Independent Wagga Wagga MP Joe McGirr has called for a moratorium on all solar farm developments until the review is finished.

Mr McGirr said the idea of agriculture and solar farms co-existing without any impact on the land or production was "over-sold".

In Wagga Wagga, farmers neighbouring solar farms have expressed concerns that the run-off from the panels could raise the already-high water table.

"They're also very sceptical that more than a handful of sheep will be able to run on these properties," Mr McGirr said.

He said he would like to see the research on the grazing of livestock on solar farms completed before any renewable energy developments get underway.

"We're having the developments being done … and the discussion and research is going to come later. 

"My concern is it will be too late, the damage will be done."