Bees and other pollinator populations have steadily declined in recent years. In part because of climate change, a trend that a 2020 study found could threaten U.S. crop fields and even pose risks to global food security.
Now imagine solar arrays between colorful displays of wildflowers and the harmonious buzz of bees and butterflies circling overhead. In short, humans aren’t the only ones who can benefit from solar farms. The so called pollinator-friendly solar farms provide an attractive approach to both the pollinator crisis and the climate crisis. Aesthetically attractive, economically viable, and potentially scalable are the other additional features.
These solar farms do double the duty: converting sunshine to electricity and supporting a population of pollinators. By planting a deep-rooted mix of native flowers and grasses around and even between solar panels that can provide abundant and healthy food for pollinators, developers can provide clean energy while also expanding pollinator habitat.
Another important reason for considering these unique pollinator-friendly solar projects, is that they act like bridges with the local communities. Furthermore, it is a growing trend among utilities, solar developers and corporations those are looking to make a positive social and environmental impact, while reducing their carbon footprints.
So far, acreage was designated for either photovoltaics or photosynthesis, i.e. either to generate
electricity or grow crops. On the average solar farm, developers replant these green fields with grass. This seems like an obvious solution: grass seed is cheap and easy to maintain, requiring only an occasional mow.
What makes a solar farm “pollinator-friendly”?
Pollinator-friendly solar farms involve planting native shrubs, grasses, and flowers instead of turfgrass or covering the area beneath and around solar arrays with gravel.
Pollinator-friendly solar is not new and it’s not radical. It’s been a common practice in Europe for years, and a recent study in the United Kingdom reports that pollinator-friendly solar sites help more than bees and butterflies. It is also observed that the cost of planting a native mix of grasses and flowers is equal to or less than using gravel.
Pollinator Meadows Reduce Stormwater Impacts & Build Soil
Pollinators are one part of the picture. Native landscapes also improve stormwater management and reduce erosion. The native vegetation sends roots deeper into the soil – often 4 to 5 feet down – while turfgrass has a shallow root system of 4 to 6 inches. Not only that, but they also have faster infiltration, absorbing water at a faster rate than turfgrasses. That means decreased erosion, which also means decreased stormwater runoff, which benefits the entire community.
Since many solar leases are for 25 years, pollinator habitats become opportunities for sequestering carbon. At the end of that time, when the solar arrays are removed, and the farmer is left with rich, fertile soil. Not only is it rich in organic matter but may have been managed for more than 20 years without any synthetic chemical inputs. That makes it perfect for planting or leasing to someone wishing to raise organic crops.
Now, it is not just farmers who are interested in how the land beneath the solar arrays is managed. In 2018, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) was asked to conduct research at their 15 solar sites across the country. A study to determine what plants and types of species thrive in those environments. The same was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.
As the global energy mix continues to move toward clean and renewable sources, energy generators need to consider the overall environmental impact of their installations. In the case of solar energy, simple actions to promote pollinator health alongside PV panels make solar not only carbon-free, but also beneficial to native ecosystems and the surrounding area’s agricultural economy.