Solar-powered pollinators for less than a penny a watt

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Robin said it to me near the end of the interview, and it came through so clearly:

Everyone is like ‘yeah, get pollinators’ – but how does the work actually get done?

Ernst Pollinator Service of Pennsylvania – servicing the East Coast, and Prairie Restorations of Minnesota – servicing the Midwest, do the actual work needed to bring your solar power facility up to the various standards set by state pollinator scorecards, while also (of course) making your site a benefit to nature.

And not only does Robin Ernst have 10,000 acres of natural restoration experience and a family history of growing the seeds, Robin also comes to town board meetings in order to explain to local landowners the work she’ll be doing along with our standard solar contracting work. This is the type of work that helps get sites permitted, which is particularly important as the fossils are going hard after solar.

The work starts like this: a 5-acre plot of land will require three 6-inch deep dirt samples, taken roughly in a central triangle to spread out the collection. Ernst will dry the samples out, sift them, and send them in to local universities to be analyzed for their unique chemistry. Ernst suggests every site has something different to offer, and the seed need be matched appropriately.

The companies suggests that developers ought get in touch early in the planning process, as they can help manage invasive species, guarantee seed availability (which usually isn’t a problem) for the coming planting season, and – as noted above – get your pollinator specialists in the town hall meetings shaking hands with locals.

The exact cost of the service varies based upon seed bed preparation, required herbicides, varying seed mixes, seed installation requirements, and location of the field. However, roughly speaking, the smallest sized projects – 5 acres – end up costing about $2,500/acre. And if we’re installing 1 MWdc of solar modules per four acres, then we’re talking about one cent per watt-dc. The pricing goes down as the system size increases.

One benefit of strategic planting services is that they lower the cost of operations and maintenance. First, as noted in the graphic above – the restoration specialists choose smartly which plants to place in which places. It is requested that all solar modules are set 36 inches above the ground. Going forward, in spring and then fall, the first year will require two mowings and two plant management visits, year two might be one mowing, year three probably two mowings again – and thereafter – one mowing per year is expected.

The custom chosen seeds do more than just bring back bees though – because bees aren’t the only pollinators. Bats, birds, and butterflies all benefit as well.

The State of Vermont’s “Solar Site Pollinator Habitat Planning & Assessment Form” (pdf) notes certain site traits in determining its 0-141 “Pollinator Friendly Score”:

  1. Planned percent of site with flowering plant species
  2. Flowering plant seed mix to be used
  3. Planned cover diversity within the ground cover area
  4. Seasons that will have at least 3 blooming species with >2% cover each season
  5. Observed pollinator nesting habitat within 0.25 miles
  6. Planned management practices
  7. Pesticide risk
  8. Planned vegetation buffer adjacent to the solar site

Ernst Pollinator and Prairie Restoration actually met when they were working on designing scorecards, and decided it was best that the two teams work together based on region. And both companies have a long history of this work – with Ernst Seeds, run by Robin’s father, being the source of product for their groups planting. With Robin herself noting;

Over the last twenty years, we’ve done over 10,000 acres of native meadow development. Essentially, long before solar, we’ve been doing the same work. A lot of these plants, I’ve known since I was a little girl.

The company now has over 10,000 acres of solar pollinator projects in its pipeline, and it just so happens that today – April 5 – they’re meeting with one of their retrofit clients. That is, a customer who sees the cost benefit of upgrading an already existing solar farm to one that is pollinator friendly.

After our standard pre-pollinator days we’d have a beautiful solar field like below, and all would be good. But, at the top of this article we get the after image – full of flowers. And – again – while the below is all that is good in our industry, the top image is how we can be better.