Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.

Army Of Butterflies To Win Solar Farm Wars, Despite Opposition

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The rising tide of opposition to large-scale solar farms has been impacting the US solar industry, but over the long run, PV stakeholders have the butterflies on their side. Solar developers are eager to pitch their projects as pollinator habitats that replace cultivated crops and neglected land with native plants, benefiting the property owner and nearby farms. The pollinator angle helps to undercut complaints that solar arrays are an inappropriate use of farmland, and it supports the case for farmers to adopt new technologies that benefit their industry.

More Pollinator Habitats For Minnesota Solar Farms

Minnesota has become the epicenter of the solar-plus-pollinator trend, with local electric cooperative Connexus Energy leading the way. That’s no accident. A 2016 state law set up Minnesota’s Habitat Friendly Solar program, which incentivizes property owners and solar developers to claim benefits for gamebirds as well as songbirds and pollinating insects.

That’s a significant contrast with the early days of large scale solar development. In the early 2000s, low-maintenance beds of gravel were the preferred underpinning for solar arrays. At the time, solar costs were relatively high, and developers were seeking to cut expenses wherever they could. Solar costs have dropped significantly since then, paving the way for more beneficial alternatives.

The initial focus was on short grasses, clover, and other low-growing plants. Interest in the idea of natural ground covers picked up when researchers presented evidence that vegetation creates a cooling microclimate that helps improve solar conversion efficiency. Now attention has turned to higher-rising, pollinator-friendly flowers and native grasses that can double as a livestock grazing field.

From A One-Acre Solar Farm To 120 Acres

In a blog post last June, Connexus described how it made the switch from gravel to plants.

“It started with our headquarters solar array — initially designed to utilize class 5 gravel under and around the panels, we worked with Connexus member Prairie Restorations to design a low-growing, flowering meadow under and around the panels,” the company explained.

The new one-acre solar array took shape in 2014. Based on the success of that project, Connexus began to apply pollinator meadows to other solar farms under its umbrella. The current total is more than 120 acres.

Connexus also noted that the habitat project has benefited other local businesses. It serves as host for the local beekeeping company Bare Honey, and the Minnesota brewery Invictus Brewing has developed Bare Honey’s honey into a summer ale.

Also taking part in the multiple income streams is the grazing company Cannon Valley Graziers, which has deployed its sheep in Connexus’s fields. In addition to trimming the vegetation, the sheep help to aerate newly-mown grass and push pollinator-friendly seeds into the ground for the next growing season, Connexus noted.

It’s Pedal To The Metal For Solar Farms With Pollinator Habitats

Next steps for Connexus include experimenting with perennial plantings and exploring more options for piling other activities onto the solar garden.

Connexus is also aiming to lead a significant acceleration in the solar-plus-pollinator trend among its members and across the US, in its role as the first utility partner to engage with a new pollinator add-on to the Midwest Renewable Energy Tracking System.

M-RETS is a longstanding data platform that enables solar developers to comply with voluntary or mandatory state-level renewable energy standards.

M-RETS is based in Minnesota, but the platform can be applied throughout North America. Currently the participants are Illinois, Iowa, Manitoba, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Wisconsin, in addition to Minnesota.

M-RETS has a branch that tracks solar renewable energy credits, and this year the organization is adding the data collected under Minnesota’s solar-plus-pollinator law.

“The M-RETS tracking platform will layer this pollinator standard data onto S-RECs to create a pollinator-friendly credit designation,” M-RETS explains. “This additional data gives solar energy buyers the opportunity to encourage the development of pollinator-friendly solar and stack additional environmental benefits on their energy purchase.”

As of now, the new pollinator add-on is only active for solar farms in Minnesota, where Connexus manages the pollinator-friendly S-REC program for its members. However, M-RETS notes that the same approach can be applied in other states have adopted pollinator-friendly solar standards.

Bringing Out The Big Guns For Butterflies

“Stacking additional local benefits into solar development — and associated energy procurement — is an increasingly important strategy to address concurrent environmental challenges as well as strengthen long-term public support,” M-RETS also notes.

They aren’t kidding about that public support. The M-RETS platform has enlisted some serious firepower to help strengthen the case for pollinator-friendly ground covers. Connexus is continuing to collect data on its solar farms with an assist from the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and National Renewable Energy Laboratory, as well as the organization Monarch Joint Venture.

The Monarch Joint Venture is particularly interested in the restoration of native northern tallgrass prairie, citing a figure of just 1% remaining since European settlement.

“This loss of habitat is devastating for pollinators including the iconic monarch butterfly, which depends on native milkweed species and a variety of nectar plants to survive,” they explain.

The Monarch Joint Venture also notes that Connexus is fully on board with the mission of building public support for solar farms.

They cite Connexus Energy spokesperson Rob Davis, who says that “Minnesotans value conservation and pollinator health, so it’s natural that Minnesota is a leader in this area.”

“…energy buyers of all kinds can use the standards published by the state’s leading pollinator experts to express preferences in their renewable energy purchasing,” Davis adds. “It’s never been easier for energy buyers to ask for high-quality habitat as a ground cover for PV solar.”

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More Tools For The Solar-Plus-Pollinator Toolkit

Connexus is just one piece of a much bigger puzzle aimed at promoting utility-scale solar in rural areas. The Argonne Renewable Energy laboratories are also part of an Energy Department research program PHASE for Pollinator Habitat Aligned with Solar Energy. The program also includes the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the firm Stantec.

PHASE is focused squarely on the large, utility-scale solar farms of 10 megawatts or more, which have been dubbed “industrial solar” by opponents. The aim is to help developers scale up and configure pollinator plantings for maximum benefit.

Stantec is tasked with developing a set of how-to-pollinator tools for solar developers, including a manual, a cost-benefit calculator, a seed mix guide, and a platform for assessing the pollinator habitat.

Here Come The Agrivoltaics

If all this is beginning to sound like a branch of agrivoltaics, that’s because it is. Agrivoltaics refers to the potential for establishing a symbiotic relationship between solar panels and agricultural activity. It overlaps partly with the field of regenerative agriculture, which focuses attention on soil health and water conservation.

Low-growing pollinator habitats and grazing lands are just one branch of the agrivoltaics field. Solar developers have also been experimenting with raised solar panels and other design options that enable farmers to grow a variety of human foods within a solar array.

Agrivoltaics puts the focus back on agriculture and takes some steam out of the anti-solar movement. After all, agriculture is a business, not a backdrop. Solar farms are just the latest in a long line of new technologies and practices adopted by the US agriculture industry. Like the tractor, they are here to stay.

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Photo: Solar farms can support pollinator habitats (courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory).


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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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