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Insects thrive in restored habitats near solar energy facilities

In the tranquil surroundings of southern Minnesota, a remarkable transformation is unfolding. Amidst photovoltaic (PV) solar arrays on rehabilitated farmland, a once-dormant ecosystem is buzzing with life. This scene, reminiscent of a nature preserve, is the unexpected result of an innovative approach to solar energy development.

Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and National Renewable Energy Laboratory embarked on a mission to explore the ecological impact of PV solar energy sites, especially those restored with native grasses and wildflowers

Habitat restoration 

The focus of the five-year field study was two solar sites in southern Minnesota, operated by Enel Green Power North America, both established on retired agricultural land.

The findings were striking: in less than five years, insect abundance at these sites had tripled. This outcome underscores a critical message, as noted by Lee Walston, a landscape ecologist and environmental scientist.

“This research highlights the relatively rapid insect community responses to habitat restoration at solar energy sites. It demonstrates that, if properly sited, habitat-friendly solar energy can be a feasible way to safeguard insect populations and can improve the pollination services in adjacent agricultural fields,” said Walston. 

The bigger picture

The global decline in insect biodiversity, driven by habitat loss, pesticide use, and climate change, presents a grim picture. However, the intersection of insect habitat restoration and renewable energy developments, like PV solar energy, offers new hope. 

With the DOE’s Solar Futures Study indicating a need for approximately 10 million acres of land for solar development by 2050, targeting disturbed lands, such as former agricultural fields, becomes a strategic and ecologically sound choice.

Agrivoltaics, the co-location of solar energy production and agricultural practices, emerges as a promising solution. By integrating habitat enhancement for pollinators and wildlife, these sites can serve dual purposes, addressing both energy and biodiversity challenges. Despite its potential, this approach lacked substantial field data to back its efficacy, until now.

Beyond biodiversity

The study, led by Heidi Hartmann and her team, involved planting native grasses and flowering plants at the two solar sites in early 2018. Over four years, they conducted 358 surveys, tracking the growth of plants and the response of insect communities. 

“The effort to obtain these data was considerable, returning to each site four times per summer to record pollinator counts,” said Hartmann. ​“Over time we saw the numbers and types of flowering plants increase as the habitat matured. Measuring the corresponding positive impact for pollinators was very gratifying.”

An added advantage of these solar-pollinator habitats was observed in the adjacent crop fields. Pollinators from the solar sites were found visiting soybean flowers, enhancing pollination services. This finding is particularly significant, considering the high percentage of future solar developments expected on agricultural lands.

Study implications 

The implications of habitat-friendly solar energy are twofold. First, these sites can significantly contribute to biodiversity conservation. Second, they offer a solution to land-use conflicts, particularly in agricultural settings. By enhancing pollination services, these habitats could make prime farmland more productive.

However, the journey doesn’t end here. Further research is needed to evaluate the applicability of habitat-friendly solar across different regions and to meet varied ecological objectives, such as conserving specific insect or wildlife species.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Research.

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