Solar power companies around the world are designing ground-based solar panel installations that support native plants, animals, and insects, protecting and enriching local ecosystems.
Connexus Energy in Ramsey, Minnesota, boasts what they call the first pollinator-friendly solar project in the U.S. When the energy co-op was installing an array of solar panels in a Minnesota field almost a decade ago, the plan was to surround the panels with gravel. Instead, they decided to grow native flowering plants in the area, and the results have inspired companies around the world to do the same.
This Connexus solar site hosts black-eyed Susan flowers, purple wildflowers, hover flies, swallows, and at least one hummingbird moth. “It’s just like being in a nice, natural place,” says Rob Davis, Connexus public affairs lead. “But it’s also just a visual delight, because there’s so many things to see.” A survey of four Minnesota solar installations with flowering ground cover found that a variety of butterfly species — including the Endangered monarch — were present.
“It provides a pretty incredible opportunity,” says Wendy Caldwell, executive director of Monarch Joint Venture, a nonprofit for conserving the habitats of monarch butterflies and other pollinators. Caldwell’s team is often looking for ways to expand pollinator habitat, creating buffer zones on agricultural land, roadsides, urban gardens, and now solar developments. Solar sites have the added benefit of avoiding herbicides and pesticides, unlike farm lands. “We know that monarchs and other pollinators are using these sites,” Caldwell confirms.
In the U.K., researchers studying these “solar meadows” found boosted numbers of bumblebees not just onsite, but in the surrounding area. A 2021 report in Environmental Entomology concluded that native flowering plants at a solar site could indeed support pollinator populations, though taking care in implementing and closely overseeing the plant life is essential.
At the Ramsey location in Minnesota, Connexus sends a team out once per year to walk the meadow and clear away threatening plants. Every other year, the site is mulch mowed to break up dead plant matter and keep the soil healthy. Other locations use sheep grazing for similar upkeep. Rob Davis at Connexus says the site needs very little maintenance, aside from occasional spot reseeding. Connexus now uses pollinator-friendly habitat designs for all its installations, some of which include beekeepers who can sell the resulting honey.
In 2016, Minnesota became the first state to pass legislation establishing a pollinator-friendly scorecard for solar projects. Sites use the scorecard to guide details like the diversity of their planting or the percentage of wildflower cover. As of March 2022, there are 55 pollinator-friendly solar sites in Minnesota, and more than a dozen other states also use a similar official metric. “The movement shifted to thinking about the entire landscape instead of just a superficial fringe,” Davis says.
Katie Siegner is a manager in carbon-free electricity who has researched pollinator-friendly solar. According to her studies, solar meadows sequester carbon, help recharge groundwater, and reduce soil erosion. There are signs that improved habitat for bees and insects could improve crop yields at neighboring farms. Incorporating native habitat designs can also win local community support, a major hurdle many developers face.
Because planting a solar meadow is often more expensive than laying gravel or turf, the Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund launched an initiative called Solar Synergy. The new program, which began in March 2023, will provide solar developers with appropriate seed mixtures suited to their area and specific designs free of charge, and give the option of connecting projects with trusted commercial beekeepers.
Monarch Joint Venture aims to monitor solar sites and report on how well the habitats work for pollinators.
Sources: Reasons to be Cheerful, IUCN
EIGHT ANIMALS MAKING A COMEBACK
In 2022, the World Wildlife Fund reported on the recovering wellness of eight key animal species around the world due to decades of conservation and protection efforts:
Black-footed ferrets in the Northern Great Plains of the U.S went from Exctinct status to a population of over 350 — with conservationists aiming for 3,000.
Black rhino populations in Namibia were lifted out of the Vulnerable status, and while the species overall is still considered Critically Endangered, populations across the continent have been steadily rising since 2012.
Greater one-horned rhino in India and Nepal have a combined population of nearly 4,000. In particular, Manas National Park in northeastern India saw significant growth and now boasts 47 protected rhinos.
Humpback whales in oceans around the world have been steadily growing in number, especially in Australian waters where populations are now 50 percent greater than their pre-whaling figures.
Mountain gorillas, once considered extinct, have been recorded in a large protected area stretching from a National Park in Uganda to a Reserve in Democratic Republic of the Congo. A survey in 2011 estimated around 400 individuals; recent records list 459.
Snow leopards in Mongolia were tracked in the nation’s first-ever leopard survey. The survey found a stable population of over 950 individuals, indicating area conservation is working.
Swift foxes were reintroduced to their natural habitat in Montana after more than 50 years absent, in a program led by the Nakoda and Aaniih Nations. After the first 27 foxes were found to reproduce, an additional 48 individuals were released in the area, heading toward a sustainable population.
Tigers in areas of Nepal and India more than doubled in number from 2010 to 2022, especially in Bardia National Park, where tiger populations went from fewer than 20 individuals to almost 90.
In addition to these key species, a 2021 biodiversity monitoring survey in a vital region of Sumatra recorded the presence of tigers, Sumatran elephants, Sunda pangolins, Malayan tapirs, Sunda clouded leopards, and more. All these creatures are benefiting from conservation efforts.
Sources: World Wildlife Fund