By Peggy Hammond February 8, 2019
As a developer of utility-scale solar farms, ISS supports the creative trend of putting more than just solar panels on a solar farm site. Typically when people think of a solar power farm, they likely envision soil, gravel or grass under the array, open fields around it, and a tree line in the distance. Co-locational, sometimes called dual use, solar power farms, however, make use of native flowering plants and can be home to beehives and even food crops.
Co-locational solar makes sense. Through the simple act of planting native flowers, the area under and around a solar array quickly and easily becomes a pollinator habitat. Everyone understands the critical role pollinators play in a secure food supply: “they contribute to pollinating nearly 75% of all human food crops worldwide.” Further, with our world’s prevalent use of pesticides, pollinators are struggling, but incorporating flowers into solar farm sites means pesticides are taken out of this particular equation, resulting in a safe space for bees and butterflies. Including flowering plants benefits more than pollinators and nearby crops, it’s good for the ground as well: “This strategy helps to maintain high soil quality, reduce unwanted runoff, and increase crop yields in adjacent farms while providing habitat for pollinator populations. All of this is achieved with reduced or equivalent site development and maintenance costs.” Finally, consider the resulting landscape: “Native gardens and vegetables also offer an aesthetic benefit . . . They offer a more colorful and pleasing visual tapestry.” It seems clear widespread advantages come from small measures such as inclusion of native flowering plants at a solar farm, and the results are good for everyone. Lastly, it’s worth noting some are going further than this by installing not just plants but bee hives around the edges of solar farms, making those sites doubly friendly to pollinators.
Water-stressed pastures, solar arrays, and some food crops appear to be another good match. An Oregon State College study revealed “that grasses and plants flourish in the shade underneath solar panels because of a significant change in moisture. . . . [Researchers] found that areas under the solar panels had a different microclimate than exposed areas. Shaded areas were 328 percent more water efficient, and maintained higher soil moisture throughout the heat of summer. That led to twice as much grass under the arrays as in unshaded areas. The plants also had more nutritional value.” The implications are important for growing food crops under solar arrays, an idea undergoing research in several countries and referred to as agrophotovoltaics. In Germany, researchers have grown “winter wheat, potatoes, celeriac, and clover grass.” In China, researchers used newly-developed concentrating solar panels and grew “lettuce, cucumber and water spinach.” This is encouraging to those who want or need a solar farm for electricity but also require the land for agricultural purposes as well.
The ability to use land for both a solar farm and for growing crops would be a welcome development for many parts of the world, and ongoing research is getting attention. Meanwhile, many people are establishing native flowering plants and beehives at solar farms, and this is welcome progress in using to its fullest the land under and around solar panels. For information about our utility-scale solar farm projects, please call 828-424-7884 or visit www.innovativesolarsystemsllc.com.