Many Midwest rural electric cooperatives have adopted an innovative technique for site development. Instead of laying down gravel, pavement, or common turf grass as ground cover for solar farms, many cooperatives are establishing ground cover with a diverse array of pollinator plants.
This strategy helps to maintain high soil quality, reduce unwanted runoff, and increase crop yields in adjacent farms while providing habitat for pollinator populations. All of this is achieved with reduced or equivalent site development and maintenance costs.
Solar pollinator habitats provide a mutually beneficial strategy that encourages beneficial land use for the community and farmers. These solar farms are planted with a range of low-lying, deep-rooted plants, grasses, and flowers attracting honey bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators.
Solar pollinator habitats provide numerous benefits for rural electric cooperatives and promote sustainable development in the local community and accountability for their members, two guiding cooperative principles. This can be done all while reducing the cooperatives expenditures and environmental impact.
Soil and Water Benefits
As opposed to traditional solar site development, pollinator plants limit soil erosion and build soil health due to deep rooted plants that release nutrients back into the soil and build organic matter. This boosts the productivity and health of the soil over the long term, enhancing potential agricultural production on that land in the future.
Water quality and availability is essential to the productivity of agriculture. Pollinator habitats aid groundwater quality and reduce stormwater runoff that can harm local waters and contribute to flooding. The deep roots of pollinator plants, up to 6 feet, create a permeable surface so that stormwater infiltrates into the ground where it falls.
With traditional gravel or turf grass solar farms, ground cover is more impervious and increases runoff, carrying nutrients, sediment and other residues. This runoff can create unwanted gullies and contributes to the flooding and contamination of downstream lakes and rivers.
Benefits to Local Agriculture
Pollinators are essential to much agricultural production involving flowering plants. Crop pollination from honeybees alone contributes $15 billion annually to agricultural production in the United States. In the past decade, however, bee populations have declined rapidly, posing a significant threat to agriculture.
Pollinator habitats are essential to the re-population of bees in local communities. A single pollinator garden can increase certain crop yields in adjacent fields by up to 80% (PDF). Pollinator habitats reduce stormwater runoff onto adjacent farms and property, mitigating property disputes and land impacts. Pollinator habitats also create a pleasant aesthetic for large solar farms.
Site Preparation and Permitting
Site permitting and preparation costs for solar pollinator habitat are often lower than traditional site development strategies. The largest cost reductions come from avoided land clearing, grading, and soil compaction. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the costs associated with these operations can be reduced by up to 90% in comparison with traditional site development practices.
In addition, experience shows the local community more readily accepts solar farms with these measures, providing a quicker and more politically amiable process. As solar farms grow in size and number these beneficial strategies will help to reduce the risks of local opposition.
Maintenance costs are also significantly reduced for pollinator blended solar farms, due to the lack of dust buildup on panels and a relatively low-maintenance plant mix. Pollinator plants overtake most weeds allowing for the grounds to be maintained with a single annual mow, reducing operational costs.
Both states and rural electric cooperatives have taken notice of this new opportunity. Some states have enacted policies specifically encouraging co-location of solar farms and pollinator habitats, and some cooperatives have pioneered solar pollinator habitats.
Minnesota has been a clear frontrunner in the push for solar habitats. By a landslide vote of 188-2, Minnesota lawmakers passed HF 3353 in May of 2016 that awarded a “beneficial habitat claim” to solar farm owners who developed a pollinator habitat on the same site as the solar form.
Counties have also taken notice to the benefits of pollinator habitats. Stearns County in Minnesota has changed their land-use ordinance requiring that solar companies implement pollinator habitats into their solar projects.
Numerous electric cooperatives have undertaken projects to co-locate pollinator habitats with proposed solar farms.
- Geronimo Energy, in collaboration with Enel Green Power, is nearing completion of a 100 MW, $250 million solar farm, the largest in Minnesota. This solar project will consist of over 21 different sites and include about 1,000 acres of pollinator habitat, nearly doubling the acreage of pollinator blended solar farms in Minnesota. The company cites the opportunity to control stormwater and improve agricultural land value and agriculture use.
- NextEra Energy’s proposal for a 4.9 MW solar system in Carver County, Minnesota was met with both avid support and staunch opposition. The county board initially denied the proposal. However, after NextEra announced their plan to supplement the solar farm with a pollinator garden, members were swayed to support the project and the county board overturned the ruling, approving the proposal. As of October of 2016, no lawsuits had been filed against the project.
- Minnesota cooperative Connexus Energy, in collaboration with Prairie Restoration Inc., installed a 250 kW community solar garden in 2014 using windflowers instead of traditional gravel. As a result, they received a perfect score of 100 during a pollinator habitat assessment by the state.
- Great River Energy, a generation and transmission cooperative, has covered nearly 200 acres with native habitats for pollinators in effort to restore pollinator populations to the rural and agricultural-based communities in their territory.
- Dairyland Power Cooperative, with their project developers SoCore Energy and groSolar, plan to plants native grasses and flowering plants as ground cover for the 15 project sites now under construction, on 110 acres. These projects should be blooming in 2017.