The business case for pollinator-friendly solar sites

Courtesy ofFresh Energy

A critical opportunity is being largely overlooked on solar sites developed on farmland and outside of the desert Southwest — there has been too much focus on the hardware and not enough consideration of the vegetation under and around the panels. 

Some folks don’t like living next to solar arrays, particularly when the array is "solar-centric" in design (gravel covering the site). Instead of solar-centric approaches, businesses can help local farms and lakes, streams and estuaries by encouraging co-benefit/low-impact solar designs that are planted with native flowering plants.

We support the development of new "pollinator-friendly" solar approaches, which bring with them potential agricultural, economic and environmental benefits.

Opportunities for agriculture

Pollinator habitat on solar sites is a common practice in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and is abundantly feasible wherever solar installations are replacing rowcrops. The practice simply uses a different seed mix — not turf grass — to create a low-growing and shade-tolerant flowering meadow. These flowering plants have many agricultural and ecological benefits. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that globally, 75 percent of food crops rely at least partially on pollination. Pollinator-friendly solar sites can bring pollinators into closer contact with food crops.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture reported, "Good crop yields depend on healthy pollinator communities." For example, a 2013 study by the Nature Conservancy, conducted in New Jersey, showed that pollinator habitat adjacent to crops such as watermelons, squash and apples significantly increased yields and gross revenue as a result of a greater abundance of native pollinators. And research on a soybean field adjacent to pollinator habitat completed at Hood College in Maryland showed that "bee pollination increased the total number of pods by up to 24 percent." As soybeans are a primary source of protein in a chicken’s diet, increasing soybean yields is particularly important to poultry farmers.

Maryland and Minnesota are two states, so far, that formally have adopted a flexible standard as to what constitutes "pollinator-friendly" for a solar array. Vetted by several of the nation’s top entomologists, these standards play an important role in making sure that when a site is promoted as beneficial to pollinators, it delivers on those commitments.

Improvement of soil and water quality

Instead of gravel or turfgrass, sites with properly designed native vegetation help capture nutrients in the soil and prevent the movement of nutrients into our lakes, streams and estuaries (the Chesapeake Bay being the nation’s largest). Unlike shallow-rooted turfgrass, deep-rooted native flowers and grasses significantly increase organic matter and the quality of soils.   

Panels alone pose no benefit to crop yield or water quality, but they are nontoxic and compatible with food crops. Studies completed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory show that solar projects release no toxic materials during their operations, so they do not harm plants or pollinators. Planting "pollinator-friendly" solar sites has the potential to greatly expand the safe habitat and forage plants that pollinators need to survive.

Economic benefits to farmers

The poultry industry continues to bear the burden of long-term, increasing electricity costs. In a typical operation, paying electricity bills accounts for around 20 percent of a grower’s costs. 

Meanwhile, prices are plummeting for renewable energy technology, and ground-mounted solar panels have become a popular new way for farmers nationwide to diversify farm revenue. As of December 2016, costs for electricity from wind and solar are lower than coal and gas. In just the last seven years, the cost of wind energy fell 66 percent and solar fell 85 percent.

Generating more power locally — with an energy resource that is free and abundant throughout farm country — would help combat the cycle of electricity cost increases on America’s farmers.

And solar sites that use native vegetation under and around the panels will contribute even more to the economy by growing the market for locally trained entrepreneurs in the landscape, native seed and plant industries.

Businesses can lead

Decisions made by businesses and landowners help shape our future. In America’s agricultural communities, the economic benefits of solar development must be balanced against other potential uses for agricultural land.

Sustainable approaches mean that businesses think beyond compliance or profit strategies to create solutions that also support a quality environment and improve our long-term competitiveness. Pollinator-friendly solar sites offer a chance for farming communities to benefit from clean energy in multiple ways.  

Finally, pollinator-friendly solar sites offer a chance to help restore the rural landscape. Large solar-centric arrays are a drastic departure from the broad green viewscapes for which agricultural communities are beloved. Flowering plants offer farmers and passersby relief from "industrial solar" landscapes, and can offer nature lovers additional places to view wildlife, including quail and a variety of songbirds and butterflies.

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