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Diversify with Solar

Considering the installation of a solar array? Don’t forget the pollinator habitat.

You are used to harvesting corn, soybeans, and wheat, but what about harvesting sunlight?

“More and more farmers are looking to be more sophisticated in how they think about on-farm electricity,” says Rob Davis, director, Fresh Energy, an independent nonprofit organization working to speed the transition to a clean energy economy. “Other farmers are thinking about how to diversify farm revenue.”

One option, for both scenarios, is to determine what percentage of your ground could be used for a solar array, the area with connected solar panels.

The catch? It needs to be within a couple miles of an electrical substation. “If you have land adjacent to a substation, you have an opportunity to rent out your land to a solar developer,” Davis says.

That ground rental can bring $800 to $1,500 per acre annually for the duration of the lease, he says. “It’s a great way to provide stability. As a landowner, you’re locking in that income,” he says.

Solar is Growing

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, commercial prices to install solar have fallen by 58% since 2012 and by 16% in 2016. In 2016, solar made up 39% of all new electric generating capacity. This made up 1.4% of U.S. electrical generation. By 2020, this level is slated to surpass 3% of total U.S. electrical generation. By 2022, this level is expected to hit 5%. Currently, there are 1.5 million solar installations in the U.S.

So, what do these statistics mean? For starters, solar arrays will become a more common sight throughout the countryside.

There has been an effort to engage and educate solar companies to make solar arrays, usually varying in size from 5 to 100 acres, pollinator friendly, says Davis.

Leaders in the field

“Minnesota and Maryland have state laws regarding the term beneficial for pollinators,” says Davis. “The form it takes is a scorecard.”

If your state doesn’t have a pollinator-friendly scorecard, you can use one developed from Minnesota or Maryland – whichever has geography most similar to your location.

“The important thing is to use a standard,” Davis says. “It ensures that solar companies are doing the right things. That’s why we helped to get these standards in place. We want to rely on people who have experience in this area.”

The solar arrays typically have a 20- to 25-year lease, says Colleen Hollinger, public relations and business development for Minnesota-based Prairie Restorations.

“Farmers considering leasing acres for solar can positively impact native habitat, because they can require that it’s planted to a pollinator-friendly standard. By planting a native pollinator habitat, we’re not only helping crops but also improving the soil and filtering water,” she says.

“The beauty of solar is it performs under all the conditions corn and beans do,” says Davis.

However, it’s not dependent on nitrogen, rainfall, or heat. Better yet, there’s no need for solar arrays to be placed on highly productive soil. “For farmers contemplating land with high-quality soils, there are careful considerations,” says Davis. “You want to use the land productively. That’s where our campaign with pollinator-friendly solar comes in. Pollinator habitat, in and of itself, should be considered productive use of farmland.”

Pollinator Habitat Solar
Rob Davis

Pollinator habitat Establishment

First, the soil has to be free of weeds. Field history will factor into how the area is prepared. “If it was previously a pasture, we spray herbicide to eliminate weeds,” says Hollinger. “If it was production ag ground, we usually do minimum disking.”

Proper seed selection is next. “We determine what the plant population was pre-European settlement,” she says. “If we can’t use our own seed, we source native, pollinator-friendly seed that is indigenous for the area.”

The first year of establishment entails the most work on the habitat. During the second and third years, visits are limited to two to three times for mowing and spot-spraying, if necessary.

Cost and Benefits

The cost for the pollinator habitat falls to the solar development company.

“The arrangement is that the solar company pays the lease and the taxes along with prairie establishment,” says Hollinger.

The financing is built in to maintain the habitats throughout the lease.

“It costs approximately $200 more per acre to establish a diverse pollinator habitat compared with commonly used turfgrass,” says Hollinger. “These leases often have a 25-year renewal. The farmer who is leasing the land can create a pollinator-friendly legacy.”

Pollinator habitats help to manage wild bee populations and significantly benefit soil and water quality due to deep-rooted plants, says Davis.  

It’s not just pollinators that will benefit from the native planting. Other wildlife, such as ground-running animals and birds like pheasants, also utilize the solar array. Hollinger encourages companies fencing the area to leave space between the ground and fence to allow the animals to come and go.

“The key benefit areas that we’ve seen and know are documented,” says Davis. “Native plants have superior performance in storm water infiltration rates compared with turfgrass. They break up compacted soils and add organic matter, which results in more water-holding capacity.”

Not surprisingly, the yields of adjacent orchards increase due to pollinator habitats. There’s another crop that also garners a yield bump.

“The Maryland Department of Agriculture shows soybean yields have a yield increase of 18% when adjacent to pollinator habitats,” says Davis.  

An adjacent solar array also ensures you will have a silent neighbor for 25 years, reminds Hollinger.

For those concerned about urban sprawl, it’s a bonus.

“If you are looking to lease land for a solar array, make sure you have in the contract that the project will be developed and maintained in a way that is beneficial to pollinators.”

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