Solar energy is at the forefront of sustainable practices, but there is still room to make installations even more environmentally-friendly. Roof-mounted and parking canopy solar projects utilize space that would otherwise be idle, and ground-mounted projects on industrial sites or brownfields are excellent candidates for solar energy. Through a solar installation, companies can generate clean, renewable energy and reduce their carbon footprints, but they can go even one step further to enrich the environmental health area by creating a habitat for pollinators at the project site.
“Pollinator-friendly” solar refers to the practice of planting and maintaining ground-mounted solar in such a way as to attract and provide a home to pollinator species such as bees and butterflies. Establishing a pollinator habitat is often comparable in cost to deploying traditional seed mixes. Yet a current roadblock to widespread implementation is that most solar designers simply are not experts on how to build these habitats.
Fortunately, several states have now released “pollinator-friendly scorecards,” which list the requirements for a solar site to be considered pollinator-friendly. The way these criteria are presented and prioritized vary slightly from state to state, but they all emphasize the same four major criteria. These are:
- Flowering plants
- Native species
- Minimal human disturbance
The first three items on this list relate to the seed mixes selected and planted on a site, while the fourth has to do with how the site is maintained after plantings are established. Let’s explore these concepts to get a better sense of what they mean and how they serve pollinator populations.
The need for flowering plants is pretty self-explanatory, as flowers provide the nectar on which pollinators feed. An abundance of flowering plants will ensure that pollinators come to a habitat and stay there for an extended period of time.
Pollinators often co-evolve with the plant species they rely on for food and protection. Therefore, the most beneficial plants for the pollinator species are native to a given area. Native plant species can also survive with very little care, since they are already adapted to the climate and soil, and they do not run the risk of becoming an invasive species that can harm the surrounding ecosystem. It’s a win for the bees, a win for the surrounding ecosystem and a win for the system owner, who can enjoy low maintenance costs for landscaping.
Biodiversity, or the coexistence of a variety of species in an ecosystem, is an essential factor to ensure that a pollinator habitat is healthy. In fact, one of the main ways that ecologists rate the health of any ecosystem is by measuring biodiversity. Having multiple species onsite increases the resiliency of the ecosystem should a disease, drought or other hardships fall on an area. Moreover, oftentimes not all of a pollinator population’s needs can be met by a single plant species. For example, most plants only bloom for a couple of weeks every year, while pollinators need to feed throughout most of the year (minus the time spent hibernating). Having a variety of species that bloom at different times throughout the year will ensure that pollinators will have a food source year-round and neither starve nor leave to find better feeding grounds.
Minimal human disturbance
The final item on this list is another obvious way to help pollinator populations. For example, the use of pesticides and herbicides is strongly penalized on scorecards, as they can be directly toxic to pollinators and the plants. Mowing and other physical disturbances can also make a habitat inhospitable by disrupting nesting sites and harming or killing plants and pollinators alike. Some disturbance is unavoidable on solar sites since operations & maintenance crews need to come and go, and plants cannot be allowed to grow tall enough to shade modules. However, these impacts can be minimized by maintaining only the necessary access paths to equipment and employing low-impact mowing techniques (such as solar grazing with sheep).
While there are more factors that contribute to a pollinator habitat than the ones listed above, these are the main standards. In general, if you would like to design a pollinator-friendly solar site, it is best to use a state scorecard – even if the solar project is in a state that has not created one yet. For example, Vermont has a great model that can be applied elsewhere. If you are interested in pollinator-friendly solar or going solar at your facility, EnterSolar can provide a tailored, complementary technical and financial analysis based on your real estate portfolio, energy usage, and available state and utility incentives. EnterSolar is agnostic to project structuring and provides a turnkey solar solution for corporate clients. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 888-225-0270.