Benefits for Agriculture

Many solar farms are built in rural areas where agriculture is the dominant industry. As a result, there are concerns about how solar farms interact with agriculture and the agricultural economy. Farm-friendly solar can benefit agriculture in many ways.

“This is an alternative kind of farming. In a way we’re farming energy, we’re farming pollinators, we are providing a place for native plants to exist. So, again there’s so many benefits, so many win-win-wins, this is potentially really exciting,” said Ron Bowen of Prairie Restorations, Inc.

Farm-friendly strategies for solar assist soil and water conservation and increase pollinator habitat — goals supported by many in the agricultural community.

Pollinators Benefit Agriculture

The agricultural community widely supports efforts to protect and enhance pollinator habitat because of the essential role of pollinators. A Cornell University study estimated that crops “pollinated by honeybees and other insects contributed $29 billion to farm income.” With over 90 crops dependent on insect pollination, many farm groups recognize the problems of population decline.

Pollinators bring direct economic benefit to many agricultural sectors that require pollination to grow fruit, vegetables, nuts and even some row crops. Whether provided by contract pollinators who bring hives to fields and orchards or by wild pollinators  pollinators are essential.

Protection of pollinator habitat is especially important given the fact that so many pollinator species are threatened today. Reversing declines in populations helps to avoid pollinators becoming endangered species which could result in farmers facing requirements for other actions. For example, providing habitat with solar farms can reduce pressure to provide habitat from working farmlands.

 

Pollinator Habitat that Generates Income

In addition to the direct benefits from pollination, pollinator-friendly on solar farms will help meet goals shared by numerous agricultural groups such as the expansion of habitat. The federal Pollinator Health Task Force recommended restoring or enhancing 7 million acres of land for pollinators.

Solar prairies provide pollinator habitat while allowing farmers and land owners to earn income from solar lease payments or land sales. Solar pastures and solar beekeeping allow for the complete integration of solar generation with agricultural land uses.

Soil benefits

Prairie plants limit soil erosion from wind and water flows over the landscape. The roots of the plants help to bind the soil in place much the same way soil clumps to roots when plants are pulled out. The above-ground plant also protects soil from water and wind erosion, avoiding soil loss or the creation of gullies.

Pollinator plants also enhance soil health as the deep-rooted plants build organic matter and release nutrients. This boosts the productivity and health of the soil over the long term. Prairie solar results in healthier soils; this enhances potential agricultural production in the future and increases land value after the life of the solar project.

“One of the many questions that we’ve gotten early on in the process is, OK, what are the soils going to be like after 25 years and the solar array is decommissioned? Do you know what’s going to be left behind for the farmers at that point?

And the good news is there’s a lot of research that the soil is going to be better than it was before.” – Mike Evenocheck

Stormwater Reduction and Water Conservation Benefits

Farmers and solar project developers must concern themselves with the volume and quality of water runoff from their properties. Low impact site development as reflected in prairie solar reduces downstream stormwater risks and project costs. The EPA has found that low impact development reduces costs compared to conventional methods by 15 to 80 percent across multiple project types.

Managing stormwater flows affects project finances in many ways including infrastructure requirements, permitting costs and maintenance. With conventional ground cover, such as gravel or turf grass, more water runs off due to soil compaction and reduced permeability. This results in higher stormwater management costs for structures such as retention basins, swales or drainage infrastructure.

The deep roots of pollinator plants,  some greater than 6 feet deep, create a permeable ground surface, allowing more stormwater (3-4 times as much) to infiltrate into the ground where it falls. Depending upon local and state laws, this can result in a significant reduction in stormwater management development and maintenance costs compared to more impervious surfaces. These savings should be factored into cost comparisons among alternatives.

The nearby community also benefits from low impact development. When less stormwater is discharged from the site to surface waters, the risk of flooding downstream is reduced.

When more water infiltrates into the ground it helps to recharge groundwater, which can benefit farmers. The quality of  water that is discharged from prairie solar fields is higher than that from other agricultural fields because they are not fertilized or treated with pesticides and they filter sediments from the water.

Water quality and availability is essential to agriculture. Pollinator habitat increases groundwater quality and reduces stormwater runoff that can harm local waters and contribute to flooding.

 

© 2019 Environmental Law & Policy Center