Solar farms offer one way to meet the world’s decarbonisation targets, but they could also be used to tackle another of the planet’s big problems: loss of biodiversity.
The approach is starting to take off. Residents of Barnsdale, for example, will soon play host to a new solar-panel farm lined with meadows of wildflowers and native grasses, which Banks Group, the developer, says will boost pollinating insects.
The idea stems from the confluence of two long-term trends: declining numbers of pollinating insects and the growing amount of land allocated to solar farms. According to the Center for Biological Diversity in Arizona, more than 40 per cent of insect pollinators globally are listed as ‘highly threatened’ – an issue that could seriously threaten food security. Meanwhile, solar-energy capacity has been increasing. In the UK, solar capacity increased from 5,489 MW in 2014 to 13,529 MW in 2019. According to Greenmatch – a renewable energy comparator – the UK will drive this figure up to 15,675 MW by 2023.
Early forms of pollinator-friendly solar farms first arose in Europe and have now gained traction in the USA, where six states in the Midwest and along the east coast have adopted legislation that allows solar sites to be officially designated ‘pollinator-friendly’. MCE – a solar provider in California – announced in 2020 that pollinator habitats will be mandatory across all of its new solar projects.
Given the amount of land needed for solar farms, the idea of making the space between and beneath panels amenable to pollinators seems intuitive. One 2021 study, published in the journal Nature, estimated that if solar energy were to account for 25–80 per cent of the electricity mix by 2050, 0.5–2.8 per cent of the EU’s total land mass would be needed for solar generation.
Matthew O’Neal, a professor of entomology at Iowa State University, would like to see more solar developers seize this opportunity. ‘Currently, Indiana has at least 15 planned solar energy farms in development, each projected to cover more than 1,000 acres [405 hectares]. One is planned to cover 4,500 acres,’ he says. ‘If planted with pollinator habitat, this one development would provide almost as much habitat specifically for pollinators as the entire state’s CP42 enrolment [the USDA Conservation Reserve Program’s pollinator-conservation initiative].’
The benefits of such projects don’t stop at the insects. Research from Yale’s Center for Business and the Environment demonstrates that pollinator-friendly solar farms can boost crop yields on nearby arable land, increase the recharging of groundwater and reduce soil erosion. In 2018, a US Department
of Energy study found that ‘if all existing and
planned solar facilities near soybean, almond and cranberry crops included pollinator habitat and increased yield by just one per cent, annual crop values could rise by US$1.75 million, US$4 million and US$233,000, respectively.’
‘Farmers could identify unprofitable areas, such as low-yielding, highly erodible lands, as candidates for a pollinator-friendly solar farm. There’s the potential to increase their net income with pollinator incentive schemes,’ says O’Neal.
With enough forward thinking, these studies show, clean energy can provide new environmental opportunities. ‘We’re at an inflection point with energy production and we’re seeing more opportunities to provide extra benefits that wouldn’t have been considered with older methods of energy generation,’ says O’Neal. ‘You never heard of a coal mine planning pollinator conservation.'