This article was co-written by Bartley Higgins, Brendan Grajewski and Georgia Carroll.
Ten years ago, the U.S. Senate unanimously (yes, seriously) designated June 19-25 as National Pollinator Week. This event serves as a rallying cry to address the urgent issue of declining bee populations, and to recognize the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, and other pollinators. The number of managed honey bee colonies (beehives) in the United States has declined steadily over the past 60 years, from 6 million in 1947 to just 2.5 million today. This matters. Pollinators help US agriculture to produce more than $20 billion dollars of products annually, and help to keep fruits, nuts, and vegetables in our diets. Given the heavy dependence of certain crops on commercial pollination, the decline of honey bee populations poses a real threat to the future of agriculture in this country.
Developers such as Sol Systems have a unique opportunity to address pollinator decline by choosing to incorporate pollinator habitat into their ground-mount solar farms. Typically, developers grade land and remove all vegetation to minimize site preparation costs, to reduce the likelihood of shading, and to minimize wildfire risk. Such practices do not consider the long-term impacts on the land, including the reduction of habitat for pollinators and wildlife, and long-term soil degradation. Nor do they consider the opportunity below their feet: 95% of the land around a typical solar array is available for vegetation growth. By planting native seed mixtures, solar developers can provide significant ecological services to the community, including improved storm water management, enhanced soil fertilization, and pollinator habitat restoration, while expanding nesting, hunting, and foraging opportunities for small animals and birds.
That all sounds nice – but how does it affect the economics? After all, competition in the solar industry is cutthroat, and margins can be razor-thin. Researchers at NREL are currently leading an effort to demonstrate solar development cost reductions from low-impact practices, and early results have been encouraging. In the meantime, developers should consider the range of potential benefits. By adopting pollinator habitat into their site design, developers can help to win community support, at a time when solar is facing community opposition in certain jurisdictions. Low-impact designs can also experience a smoother permitting process relative to conventional designs. Pollinator plants can require more up-front maintenance and site development costs, but lower maintenance after plants are established. This means lower O&M spend on mowing, storm water management, and weeding. There are even examples of developers partnering with beekeepers, shepherds, and geese grazers, unlocking additional project revenue streams. Developers will need to plan carefully and leverage region-specific knowledge when considering these opportunities, but we are encouraged by what we have seen thus far.
Policy makers are also beginning to recognize that pollinators and solar together are a win-win for the environment. In 2016, Minnesota passed the nation’s first standard for pollinator-friendly solar sites. With broad support, Maryland has since directed the Department of Natural Resources to develop similar guidelines. While so far the standards adopted have been voluntary, it is clear that government is raising the stakes for developers to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability. For Sol Systems, this means doubling down on our commitment to the environment by incorporating pollinator habitat and other low-impact site-design into our projects whenever possible, including on-sites currently under development in Maryland and Virginia.
So, reach out to us with questions or projects that incorporate colocation with pollinator-friendly plants, and enjoy National Pollinator Week!
ABOUT SOL SYSTEMS
Sol Systems, a national solar finance and development firm, delivers sophisticated, customized services for institutional, corporate, and municipal customers. Sol is employee-owned, and has been profitable since inception in 2008. Sol is backed by Sempra Energy, a $25+ billion energy company.
Over the last eight years, Sol Systems has delivered more than 600MW of solar projects for Fortune 100 companies, municipalities, universities, churches, and small businesses. Sol now manages over $650 million in solar energy assets for utilities, banks, and Fortune 500 companies.
Inc. 5000 recognized Sol Systems in its annual list of the nation’s fastest-growing private companies for four consecutive years. For more information, please visit www.solsystems.com.