Enel, NREL partner on three-year solar vegetation study

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It’s long been a point of contention between farmers, environmental activists and the solar industry: whether devoting agricultural land to utility- and commercial-scale solar farms is the best use of the arable land on those properties. A new partnership between Enel Green Power North American and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) aim to find an answer to this vital question.

The two organizations will partner for three years to discover the environmental and energy-production benefits that vegetation can bring to a solar farm by studying Enel’s 150 MW Aurora (Minnesota) solar project. The goal is to determine best practices on solar farms to create pollinator-friendly practices so the surrounding farmland can still produce agricultural crops.

In addition, Enel and NREL will evaluate microclimate conditions, soil characteristics, soil-carbon recycling and the effects of vegetation on energy production.

The Aurora project is not a single site, but a group of 16 plants. Researchers say that the variety of environments contained within the one project make it the perfect location to do a study like this because it provides multiple microclimates to examine, which allows the researchers to see different conditions within the same project.

“The Aurora project sites provide us with a unique opportunity to examine a wide variety of solar and agriculture co-location questions with an unparalleled level of rigor,” said Jordan Macknick, principal investigator from NREL and the leader of the DOE InSPIRE project examining low-impact solar development opportunities. “What we learn from this partnership will have important implications for low-impact solar development in the future.”

The research project will start this spring and will run three years. This is the first research project where NREL and an industry partner have conducted the research together.

Before the study was even commissioned, however, developers in at least two other states were already taking pollinator viability into account. Following dire reports of bee-colony collapses in recent years, at least three new solar sites in Florida and Maryland are trying to provide safe havens for these critical links in the food chain.

Cypress Creek Renewables has built the 9 MW Baker Point Solar Farm in Maryland that will be home to honey-producing hives that each produce an average of 30 pounds of honey each season. Florida Power & Light created a Solar Sanctuary program to build environmentally friendly solar farms in the Sunshine State.