By Rob Davis
A promising new trend is showing signs of incrementally helping the solar industry to increase revenue, decrease operations and management costs, open up new markets, accelerate permitting, decrease litigation risk, and attract new land lease partners. It’s not a new module, inverter, or racking — it’s an innovative approach to the vegetation design and management. Civil engineers working on LEED-certified building design have long known that the vegetation specified in a project can provide meaningful functional benefits, in addition to being a cost-effective way to gain points toward the standards. These innovations—using ecology to benefit technology—have now made their way into the solar industry in projects throughout the country.
One of the most popular and widespread examples of this trend is pollinator-friendly solar—the use of entomologist-vetted standards to inform the seed mixes used throughout solar sites. First established in Minnesota—home to MacArthur Genius award winning bee scientist Dr. Marla Spivak and leading monarch butterfly scientist Dr. Karen Oberhauser—pollinator-friendly solar scorecards establish a set of small changes in solar site design that result in a meaningful benefit for a variety of pollinator species.
It’s this pairing of a small change for a meaningful benefit—backed up by several nationally prominent scientists who know what reasonably constitutes “beneficial to pollinators” within the managed landscape of a solar array—that is attracting a growing number of industry leaders. Xcel Energy, the nation’s eighth most valuable electric utility by market cap, is requiring a completed copy of a pollinator-friendly solar scorecard for each bid in its solar procurement. Electric co-ops Connexus Energy and Dairyland Power have embraced pollinator-friendly solar for several years.
Nationally, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is studying pollinator-friendly and other low-impact solar innovations in order to quantify what they see as numerous and cascading benefits these design approaches can provide to the industry.
What follows are photos and project information from solar projects that all meet or exceed these entomologist-vetted standards for pollinator-friendly solar. Additional projects including Eden Renewables, Disney, Clif Bar, Organic Valley, Giant Food Stores, Penn State, Perdue Farms, and President Carter’s solar farm were seeded too recently to be photo-ready for this year.
Prairie Restorations, Inc. seeded and manages this 1.1 MW project near Menomonie, Wisconsin for Dairyland Power. The solar array is set back about 75 feet from the road. Image: Gauthier Dubois/ Engie
A bumblebee pollinates an Indian blanket native flower. Bee the Change seeded this 1.67 MW installation in Hinesburg, Vermont for Engie, which is developing all solar projects on arable land to be pollinator-friendly. Engie is partnering with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) on a study evaluating the performance of various seed mixes on solar sites. Image: Fresh Energy
A monarch caterpillar on swamp milkweed. Bee the Change seeded this 500 kW array in New Haven, Vermont for Green Lantern Solar. The site is one of five providing power to Sugarbush ski resort. Image: Mike Kiernan
Understory Initiative seeded this 9.9 MW Pine Gate Renewables installation in Medford, Oregon that is co-located with honey bee hives managed by Old Sol Apiaries. The project includes vegetation test plots for NREL’s study. Image: Claudia Weeks, Pine Gate Renewables
A local resident signs his name on a panel at this 485 kW installation built by SunCommon in Kingston, New York, and seeded with a mix from Ernst Conservation Seeds. Image: SunCommon
NREL scientist Jordan Macknick joins Jake Janski of vegetation management contractor Minnesota Native Landscapes to survey a pollinator-friendly crop test plot planted underneath the PV array at this 150 MW installation owned by Enel Green Power in Chisago County, Minnesota. Image: Dennis Schroeder/ NREL InSPIRE
Prairie Restorations, Inc. seeded and manages the vegetation at this 40 kW community solar farm in Duluth, Minnesota for Minnesota Power. Image: Prairie Restorations, Inc.
Sited primarily on prime agricultural soils, the Marshall Solar Farm shown here has an agricultural mitigation agreement to maintain perennial vegetation that is beneficial to pollinators and wildlife. Prairie Restorations, Inc. seeded this 60 MW installation owned by NextEra, in Marshall, Minnesota. Image: Fresh Energy
A beekeeper from Bare Honey inspects hives outside a pollinator-friendly 3 MW solar installation in St. Joseph, Minnesota. Minnesota Native Landscapes seeded the site. IPS Solar, the site’s developer, is developing all its projects to exceed pollinator-friendly solar standards. Image: Dennis Schroeder/ NREL InSPIRE
Natural Resource Services seeded and manages this 1 MW installation built by US Solar in Big Lake, Minnesota. US Solar says that all of its solar projects are now using pollinator-friendly ground cover that significantly exceeds the standards. Image: Fresh Energy
Denison University in Granville, Ohio seeded this 2.3 MW, 10-acre solar site using seed mix from Shooting Star Native Seeds. The planting significantly exceeds the beneficial habitat threshold established in a scorecard by the Ohio Pollinator Habitat Initiative, a consortium of more than 80 organizations including representatives from government agencies and conservation organizations. Image: Susan Studer King
The Conservationist LLC planted this 1.26 MW solar farm at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio. “This project fits our Catholic mission and our responsibility to be good stewards of God’s creation, and is another step toward fulfilling our aspiration to be a leader in sustainability education, research, and operations,” University of Dayton President Eric F. Spina said. The university was the first Catholic university in the nation to divest from fossil fuels. Image: Terry Lavy
This 245 kW co-op system built in 2014 by Connexus Energy in Ramsey, Minnesota was the first in the nation to meet a pollinator-friendly solar standard, and the largest co-op solar array in Minnesota at the time. Prairie Restorations seeded and manages the site. The utility requires all its solar farms on arable land to be pollinator friendly. Image: Prairie Restorations, Inc.
Poolesville was one of the first municipalities in Maryland to install a solar array—a 1.1 MW project at the water treatment plant. In the fall of 2018, the community re-seeded the project to establish a flowering meadow and provide beneficial habitat for pollinators, using seeds from Ernst Conservation Seeds. Image: Wade Yost
Rob Davis is the director of the Center for Pollinators in Energy at Fresh Energy