Solar park or biodiversity preserve?

When it comes to improving the environment solar can offer a lot more than clean energy. Solar farms have also been shown to offer protection to rare species of birds, animals, plants and to foster biodiversity.

This was highlighted by the recent, and perhaps misinformed, decision by the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to cut subsidies to farmers with PV installations on agricultural land. According to PV Magazine, this blatant undermining of solar’s growth has been labeled "damaging and incorrect" by the Solar Trade Association (STA), which announced that it is to write to Truss arguing that the matter need not be an either/or scenario.

"The government's own planning guidance makes clear that farming practices should continue on solar farms on Greenfield land,” said the STA’s head of external affairs, Leonie Greene. “The industry has been very careful to define good practice to ensure continued agricultural production. It is damaging and incorrect to suggest that solar farms are in conflict with food production. The land is still available for farming and solar fixings only take up 5% of the land,” she said. “Solar farms have an important role to play in conserving our countryside. Not only can solar power save huge amounts of greenhouse gases, but solar farms can provide protected spaces for boosting biodiversity, such as wildflowers and bees, as well as providing greater income stability for farmers who face increasing weather risks due to climate change,” she concluded.

As Leonie Greene points out, most solar farm panels are set on posts and, typically, only about 5% of the ground beneath them is disturbed. This means 95% of any field used for a solar farm remains available for crops, grazing, or for whatever wildlife and wild plants are endemic to the area. Importantly, after installation, the ground remains relatively undisturbed because there is little human activity apart from occasional maintenance.

“Panels like the Canadian Solar CS6P-P have a lifespan of 25 years, or more, which means wildlife has the chance to properly establish itself over the long term,” said Dr. Shawn Qu of Canadian Solar. As an added bonus, many species benefit from the diversity of light and shade that the solar arrays provide. And solar farms also offer enormous potential for honeybees, as the wildflowers that grow between the arrays are a great source of nectar.

 

“Bee populations around the world are under pressure and, since humanity is dependent on them to pollinate a wide variety of crops, any measure that increases their numbers can only be a good thing,” said Dr. Qu.

 

The benefits don’t end there because farmers can get a lot more than energy off a solar farm. Bees make honey. And the land can also be used to feed sheep or goats, which keep the fauna cropped, which creates better conditions for wild flower growth, which is great for the bees… a virtuous circle.

Person Country Solar Park in North Carolina, USA, is a good example. Canadian Solar and partner Carolina Solar Energy completed construction of a 650 kW solar farm on the site of the Person County Business and Industrial Center. The system uses 3,420 high efficiency Canadian Solar 190 W crystalline PV modules and generates approximately 837,000 kilowatt-hours each year.

“Instead of using a metal racking system, we use wood,” said construction engineer Eric. “So, as far as the goats are concerned, the arrays are very like trees. They provide good shade, absorb sunlight and convert it to energy without creating CO2 or other greenhouse gas emission. Every solar farm is potentially a unique eco-system that benefits the natural world of which we are all a part”.