Utilities developing large-scale solar installations are taking a second look at how they affect the fragile natural ecosystems that surround them, and insect pollinators may be the beneficiaries.
Minnesota electricity cooperative Connexus Energy recently secured permission to build a utility-scale solar project by having experts on insect pollinators, as well as ecologists, testify that “this wouldn’t be just any solar development,” Utility Dive reports. It’ll feature a carefully-reconstructed pollinator paradise, underneath and amongst the solar panels, of native species and their companion bees and other beneficial insects.
Currently the biggest energy storage co-op in America, and now “the first integrated bee farm and solar site in the country,” Connexus Energy realized that “land is valuable,” said Rob Davis, director of both the Center for Pollinators in Energy, as well as the Media and Innovation Lab at Fresh Energy in St. Paul. With utility-scale solar expected to take up three million acres of land by 2030 and six million by 2050, he added, companies and policy-makers are looking to pre-empt opposition by designing their projects with habitats in mind.
“A refrain that I’ve heard often is that the solar industry needs to learn the lessons of the wind industry,” Davis said. “When you build projects that people just complain about over and over again, you’re building a base of opposition.”
In this case, that learning was jump-started by a 2016 state ordinance that established “voluntary solar site management practices” that provided for native perennial vegetation to support pollinators, while also reducing stormwater runoff and erosion caused by non-native plants, gravel, or turf grass at solar sites. Since then, Utility Dive notes, “five other states have since enacted similar legislation.”
Davis pointed to the advantage for solar project proponents. “Having legislation to set standards and oversight to ensure developers ‘follow the lead of expert’ can create additional community trust,” he said. And that trust becomes a “’competitive advantage’” for utilities that want to “maximize their speed and agility” in gaining community support for new projects.
While native vegetation is more expensive to install than standard turf grass, maintenance of the fully self-sustaining ecosystem is far less costly. Moreover, conventional solar installations which demand wholesale removal of vegetation and flattened landscapes “lead to high preparation and labour costs, expected to account for 20% of the price of photovoltaic installations by 2020.”
And then there is the fact that “seeding solar grounds with native plant species provides agricultural and ecological benefits that gravel and turf cannot, such as better stormwater control because of plants’ deeper roots,” said Gavin Meinschein, lead civil engineer at ENGIE Distributed Solar. “Seeding can also boost solar efficiency by creating a cooler microclimate around the panels.”
Such seeding will grow ever more common as utility-scale solar expands, Utility Dive states, citing a study published this spring which found that “over 3,500 square kilometres of agricultural land near solar facilities in the United States could benefit from pollinator-dependent vegetation.”
Indeed, the study found that a failure to embrace the integrated bee farm + solar site model could have disastrous consequences. “In California,” for example, “70% of utility-scale solar sites are in rural areas, and a ‘number of potential adverse impacts have also been indicated with these large-scale developments, including altered hydrologic patterns, habitat loss and fragmentation, impacts to cultural and visual resources, and direct mortality of wildlife.’”