Connexus Energy of Minnesota and the National Renewable Energy Lab are working together in an experimental program that may boost the output of solar power plants. Borrowing an idea that is popular in the UK, Connexus is planting prairie grasses and flowers under and around the solar panels at one of its solar and storage facilities.
Pollinator-friendly plantings at large solar energy sites have become common in Minnesota in recent years, according to Minnesota Public Radio. Not only do they provide a habitat where bees and butterflies can thrive, they also promote soil health and may increase the solar panels’ electricity output on warm days.
The National Renewable Energy Lab is using the Ramsey Renewable Station and a couple dozen other sites around the country to test pollinator plantings. “Their hypothesis is that thicker vegetation under and around solar panels creates a cooler microclimate, which actually generates more electricity from the panels,” said Rob Davis, who directs the Center for Pollinators in Energy at the Minnesota advocacy group Fresh Energy. Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, says it will now require solar developers to include plans for similar plantings.
Davis says the Ramsey Renewable Station would have been covered with gravel if Connexus staff had not intervened. In the years since the pollinator habitat was planted there, pictures of the site have been featured in publications such as National Geographic and Martha Stewart Living. “There’s so many pollinator-dependent crops that we all love and enjoy — blueberries and apples — but every single apple flower needs to be visited two to three times by a bee,” Davis says.
During a Connexus Energy open house on Wednesday, adults and kids planted milkweed along the fence line at the new solar-plus-storage facility in Ramsey. “It’s neat to hear that the land is good for more than just the solar panels,” Michelle Austin-Dehn of Ramsey told MPR. She brought her two sons to the event in the family’s electric car. “It’s important. It’s one big planet and we’re all connected.”
Patricia Rosales brought her students from nearby Otsego Elementary, so they could learn about the importance of pollinators in school. “It’s their future, and they know if something happens to bees, what would happen, if we didn’t have fruits and vegetables and how the grocery store would look without all the things that are pollinated by bees,” Rosales said.
Connexus CEO Greg Ridderbusch told the people who came to plant flowers, “We all know we need to get to higher and higher levels of carbon-free electricity on the grid so our strategy is if we can find projects that will both save us money and green the electricity that we’re adding to the grid, those are good projects.”
Ridderbusch added that on sunny days, power from the panels costs less than power from the electricity grid. In addition, the power saved in the batteries helps the co-op rely less on the grid at times when wholesale electricity is most expensive — at peak times, like when everybody gets home from work and school and turns on the air conditioning.
“Over the next 25 years, the plantings that will be here will improve the soil, and it will be a habitat for pollinators — we actually have a farm next door,” Ridderbusch said. That farm grows pumpkins and melons. Combined with the pollinator habitat next door, the area makes a good spot to make honey. Bare Honey, headquartered in Minneapolis, has placed bee hives on the site.
The public perception of many utility companies is quite negative. Finding some that go the extra mile to be good stewards of the Earth as well is welcome news.