For many ecologically minded and climate-conscious landowners, converting to a renewable, clean energy source is a necessary step towards protecting our future, and clean energy is being adopted at an increasing rate every year. Whether it be for a home, business, farm, or larger organization, converting to a renewable energy source like solar is one of the many ways that stakeholders and land managers can halt and reverse climate change, and start reducing their impacts to the environment. While there are many aspects to consider when converting a home, business, or an organization to solar, one of the most important is simply space. Where are you going to install the solar panels, and what happens to the land underneath and around them? Even better, can you use this space effectively to benefit pollinators and convert to solar at the same time?
For some projects, solar panels can be installed on roofs, but in many larger-scale projects the installation of large solar arrays isn’t possible given roofing constraints, requiring them to be ground-based, greenfield or brownfield installations. This usually involves some necessary amount of land conversion and construction, such as vegetation removal and grading, but too often the proposed construction designs have the land underneath and around the panels unused and permanently covered by pavement, gravel, or turf for ease of maintenance. If this were to happen, the unfortunate consequence would be the removal of that habitat for use by pollinators (or most other native species), leading to a belief that it may be necessary to choose between solar arrays or pollinator habitat within the project boundaries. This has the potential to be an expensive and time-consuming issue, as these large-scale solar projects are subject to various environmental impact regulations and often must undergo review by regulatory agencies such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management to determine the potential negative impacts of these installations. If the review determines that harmful impacts to local or migratory organisms are likely, mitigation will likely be required, and the project managers may have to find some other way or some other location to mitigate the impacts of the planned solar installation. But what if we told you that the mitigation can occur right on site, you can have both solar space and natural pollinator habitat coexisting with one another, and having both can lead to clear economic and ecological benefits?
The benefits of pollinator-friendly solar installations are wide-ranging. Project sites that would otherwise be bereft of resources can become (or remain) fully functional pollinator habitats, not only mitigating the potential negative impacts of the project, but possibly even creating pollinator habitat where none occurred previously or improving degraded and underutilized habitats. Given that these solar installations are long-term investments, these are ideal areas to establish long-term pollinator resources, which can last just as long as the solar arrays themselves. Pollinators aren’t the only ones to benefit however, as having these plantings around the solar panels can keep the ground temperature regulated by providing ground shading and increased evaporation, which boosts the efficiency and output of the panels and reducing maintenance and repair costs, which is a direct benefit to the bottom-line of the solar operators. On top of that, even nearby agricultural operators can see significant benefits from these plantings as well. It has long been known that establishing pollinator habitats near agricultural fields increases yields of those crops due to increased local pollination from native pollinators, which can be a great tool especially when European honey bees are unavailable. In fact, if pollinator habitats are established within the agricultural properties themselves, even greater benefits are realized through not only increased crop yields but also reduced runoff of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients. This is especially important when considering that many large-scale solar projects occur on leased agricultural properties.
Many states, particularly in the Midwest and east coast, have begun to recognize the importance of these pollinator-friendly solar installations, and are beginning to require that these installations be designed with pollinators in mind. Some states, such as Illinois and Indiana, have created ‘pollinator-friendly score cards’ to determine how beneficial a solar installation is to local pollinators. With the passage of the Illinois Pollinator-Friendly Solar Act in 2018, the owner or manager of the solar site must submit a passing scorecard to be considered pollinator-friendly. The state of Virginia has developed the Pollinator-Smart program, to encourage pollinator-friendly solar installations throughout the state. Various energy providers are also requiring disclosures of vegetation management at solar sites, such as Xcel Energy Minnesota, officially recognizing the importance of a reduced and improved ecological footprint.
The greatest concern with establishing non-turf vegetation around a solar array is that the vegetation may grow above the height of the panels, covering them and reducing their efficiency. If this were to happen, it could lead to additional costs for mowing or other vegetation management. Admittedly, if there is no forethought as to which plant species are included in a seed mix, or if non-native, weedy species are allowed to thrive, then vegetation management can become a costly issue around the solar panels. However, with a little bit of planning and an appropriate mix of native seed and plants, this issue can be resolved before it begins.
This is where we can assist your project, by providing functional native seed mixes with forethought on long-term maintenance needs, while simultaneously meeting many pollinator habitat requirements. In particular, there are many native sedges, grasses, and forbs that are quick to establish, low profile, sun and shade-tolerant, and low-maintenance, making them ideal candidates for installation under and around solar arrays. The low-profile will prevent them from shading or covering your panels and being shade or sun tolerant they will still be able to survive and thrive long-term underneath and between the panels with minimal maintenance. While your particular mix will be tailored specifically to your project site, some great examples of what may be included in the mix are: black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), grey goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), white prairie clover (Dalea candidum), western yarrow (Achillea millefolium), sand coreopsis (Coriopsis lanceolata), and partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata).
A solar installation can be an immensely rewarding, but intricate process, so let us help you by providing free consultation on how to make sure your solar array ecosystem is pollinator-friendly, low maintenance, and fulfills the vegetation requirements of the site. Let’s go green together!