Developing standards for solar & wildlife habitat

A group of researchers in the U.S. analyzed recent developments in efforts at dual land use projects, combining solar energy with habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. Based on recent projects and studies, they offer a list of best practices for developing the habitats; and warn that without careful oversight the promising concept could amount to little more than greenwashing.

June 4, 2021

Pollinator habitats are one of a few dual land use concepts gaining ground with solar project developers, with a few successful projects already in operation in various regions. Theoretically, having wildflowers on the land around a solar park can have benefits to the system owner in energy yield and vegetation management, as well as providing much-needed habitat for bees and other pollinating insects.

With these projects still in their early stages, however, long-term benefits are yet to be proven, and more research will be needed to refine the approach and ensure maximum benefits are realized. A group of entomologists in the United States has analyzed recent projects and research in this area, and put together suggestions for best practices and the development of standards for developing and managing pollinator habitats on land also occupied by a solar PV installation.

The group, led by the Entomological Society of America, reports its findings in the paper Can Solar Energy Fuel Pollinator Conservation?, published in Environmental Entomology. “You can say, ‘How is this different than a hundred other conservation practices?’” says Adam Dolezal, assistant professor of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “And the answer is, well, it has some very weird and specific requirements to make it even on the table for solar developers to consider. And that’s something we’re still learning.”

Best practice

To realize the potential benefits of this approach, care must be taken from the start. Developers should “choose plants and arrangements appropriate for a site’s unique growing conditions”, taking into account environmental factors like climate and soil conditions, as well as PV system characteristics such as the height of the panels and minimizing overgrowth.

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And after the planning and installation stage, ongoing maintenance will be required to keep the habitat thriving and ensure that some slower-growing species can establish themselves, and this would likely need third party monitoring and certification, as is beginning to appear with legislation for ‘pollinator friendly’ landscapes being introduced in various regions.

But there is plenty more work needed for this approach to realize its full potential. “For this practice to provide tangible results, cooperation between policymakers, researchers, and industry stakeholders is critical to producing recommendations or requirements that benefit pollinators while remaining realistic within the framework of utility-scale solar developments,” the researchers conclude. “without rigorous implementation, assessment, and independent oversight, these efforts could be seen as little more than a form of ‘greenwashing’ that touts benefits to pollinators without providing them.”

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