Timing field management in and around solar fields to optimize conservation opportunities for declining grassland birds

Dr. Amy Johnson, Conservation Biologist and Program Director, Virginia Working Landscapes, Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

Biodiversity is declining globally at an alarming rate. While multiple ecosystems are at risk, our planet’s terrestrial grasslands are suffering precipitous losses. In North America, less than 1% of native grasslands remain.

As a result, species that rely on grassland habitat are in trouble. A recent study published in Science revealed that grassland birds are declining more than any other group of birds (Rosenberg et al, 2019; Figure 1). These are species that rely on contiguous open spaces, mostly free from trees, for nesting, foraging, and survival.

Figure 1. Grassland birds have declined more than any group of birds in North America. Infographic: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

In the eastern United States, the majority of grassland habitat is under private ownership. Much of these grasslands are working lands, with hay production and grazing being the most common land uses. A growing number of these working lands are also contributing to an expanding network of solar fields, often integrating solar infrastructure into actively farmed or post-agricultural fields. Simultaneously, these eastern grasslands are host to some of North America’s most vulnerable grassland birds, including Eastern meadowlarks, Grasshopper sparrows, and Bobolinks, which have experienced population declines of 75%, 68%, and 65%, respectively, since the 1970s. As such, it is critical that we prioritize research to better understand how these populations are impacted by grassland management. More importantly, in order to be successful in developing effective conservation strategies for these species on working lands, it’s necessary to facilitate a model that considers the needs of both wildlife and people.

In Virginia, a team of conservation scientists is collaborating with community partners and a network of private landowners and producers to conduct research on grassland birds on working lands. Virginia Working Landscapes (VWL) is a program of Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, and its mission is to promote the conservation of native biodiversity and sustainable land management through scientific research, education, and community engagement. Since 2010, VWL has recruited over 180 properties (totaling over 80,000 acres) that have provided researchers access for the purpose of conducting ecological research on how land management impacts biodiversity. Grasslands included in this research include fallow post-agricultural fields, solar fields, active hayfields, and livestock pastures, restored native grasslands and wildflower meadows. From this, VWL researchers have been able to assess how bird communities respond to different land management practices, including the timing of management, and have been able to apply these findings to best management practices that support grassland bird populations.

Solar is quickly emerging as one of the Virginia’s leading sources of renewable energy, with more arrays being constructed every year. With the majority of these installations occurring in and around agricultural fields, we often think about the impacts that solar may have on grassland bird communities. While there’s been minimal research on this topic (Horváth et al., 2009; DeVault et al., 2014), there are several organizations actively looking into it (see SUNY New Paltz, Virginia Pollinator Smart, Grassland Bird Trust).

One aspect of solar management that hasn’t been discussed in great detail in scientific literature is vegetation management in solar fields specific to grass and shrubland birds. With much of VWL’s research focusing on field management (not to mention the fact that it’s currently peak mowing season here in Virginia!), I wanted to use this as an opportunity to share some insights on how landowners and managers can optimize grassland management for bird communities within solar fields and beyond.

In eastern grasslands specifically, we have identified two distinct communities of birds nesting in grasslands. One we identify as grassland obligates, which include those birds that nest directly on the ground in open grasslands, including species like Eastern meadowlarks, Bobolinks, and Grasshopper sparrows. Others we refer to more commonly as shrubland birds, which often build their nests off the ground in low-lying vegetation amongst the branches of woody shrubs or weaved through the stems of sturdy wildflowers. Examples of these species include Indigo buntings, Field sparrows, and Prairie warblers. Depending on the composition and structure of the vegetation growing in and around your solar fields, it’s possible that both groups of these birds are nesting amongst solar arrays and surrounding habitat. For example, if a solar array is installed in conjunction with a pollinator wildflower mix, it may be likely that shrubland species are nesting nearby. VWL research is demonstrating that wildflower meadows support significantly higher densities of shrubland birds than fallow or agricultural fields. In contrast, arrays surrounded by fescue pasture and/or hay grasses it may be more likely to have higher densities of grassland obligates present, potentially nesting directly on the ground. Therefore, the composition of the vegetation surrounding your solar array could help determine the optimal time for field management based on the nesting phenology of the species most associated with that habitat.

In Virginia, Eastern meadowlarks start nesting as early as April 15, with peak nesting activity occurring in mid- to late May (Figure 2). Bobolinks follow shortly behind with peak nesting activity occurring in early June. Unfortunately, this is also the most popular time for field management, especially if fields are managed for hay and/or grazing, and this can have drastic negative impacts on grassland bird survival. For example, a New York study showed that hay harvests during peak nesting season resulted in 94% mortality of eggs and nestlings of grassland birds (Bollinger et al.,1990). Other species more commonly associated with wildflower meadows, like Blue grosbeaks and Field sparrows will nest into late June/early July. As such, it is important to consider the species using your fields when scheduling field management activities. For this reason, we created a “Field Management Risk Calendar” (Figure 3) to help guide managers on the optimal times to manage fields for the benefit of birds.

Figure 2. An Eastern meadowlark nest hidden amongst hay grasses at the edge of a solar field in Fauquier County, VA. Photos: Amy Johnson
Figure 3. Field management risk calendar for eastern grassland birds in the mid-Atlantic. Infographic: Amy Johnson, Smithsonian’s Virginia Working Landscapes, using data collected in Virginia grasslands.

As the calendar illustrates, delaying field management from mid-June to July 1 can make a significant difference for the survival of nestling grassland birds. Delaying to July 15 or even August 1 is even more impactful, especially for those late-nesting shrubland species. We also recognize, however, that delaying management isn’t always feasible. As such, we are currently collaborating with farmers in Virginia to identify optimal windows for early field management that will still offer opportunities for birds to fledge their young. For example, is it possible to mow early in the season, prior to peak grassland bird nesting, and still provide the necessary vegetation structure for nesting birds in late May and into June? Stay tuned to www.VAWorkingLandscapes.org to hear more as we continue collecting data on this front. In the meantime, I encourage you to refer to our Field Management Guidelines for Grassland Birds to learn more about the species that use our eastern grasslands and how we can adapt our management regimes to optimize their conservation.


References

Bollinger, E.K., P.B. Bollinger, and T.A. Gavin, . 1990. Effects of Hay-Cropping on Eastern Populations of the Bobolink. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 18(2): 142-150.

DeVault, T.L., T.W. Seamans,, J.A. Schmidt., J.L. Belant,, B.F. Blackwell, N. Mooers, L.A. Tyson, and L. Van Pelt. 2014. Bird use of solar photovoltaic installations at US airports: Implications for aviation safety. Landscape and Urban Planning,122: 122-128.

Horvath, G., G. Kriska, P. MalikB. . and Robertson. 2009. Polarized Light Pollution: A New Kind of Ecological Photopollution. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 7: 317-325.

Rosenberg, K.V., A.M. Dokter, P.J. Blancher, J.R. Sauer,, A.C. Smith, P.A. Smith, J.C. Stanton, A. Panjabi, L. Helft, M. Parr, and P. Marra. 2019. Decline of the North American avifauna. Science, 366: 120-124.

By: Andrew Valainis

Director, Montana Renewable Energy Association (MREA)

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the cost to install solar has dropped more than 60% over the last decade alone, with the average residential system costing half of what it did in 2010.[1] Still, solar photovoltaic systems are a large investment, and the up-front cost can be challenging for many Americans. In this blog post, I will explore some of the financing and financial incentive options available to help pay for these systems. I use Montana’s available options as examples, though financing and incentive programs will vary state to state.

One of the most popular and most important incentives in the U.S. is the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC). The ITC is a federal income tax credit that you can claim against the cost of the installation. This credit applies to the total cost of the installation, including labor. If you decide to install a storage system at the same time as the solar system, then you can include that cost as well. There is no upper dollar limit on how much the credit is worth. The ITC was originally set at 30% but stepped down to 26% in 2020 and will continue to step down over the next few years. In 2020, the phase-out schedule was extended for two years as part of the spending bill that Congress negotiated. The ITC will remain at 26% until 2023, when it will step down to 22% for all customers. In 2024, it will expire for individuals, while stepping down permanently to 10% for businesses.

Federal ITC Step Down 2020 Extension.

Another great option is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Rural Energy for American Program” (REAP). The REAP program provides grants – not loans – to qualifying agricultural and small businesses for up to 25% of the cost of a renewable energy project, up to $500,000. Energy efficiency grants and loan guarantees are also available through the program. This is an excellent option for agricultural producers. USDA has local offices all around the country, and I highly recommend calling them to ask about the program and how you can benefit.

In 2022, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which provides a large amount of funding for the installation of renewable energy technologies. Details are still coming out about several of the different funding opportunities, which may apply to businesses or individuals. These are worth monitoring for further information. You can learn more here.

Some states offer state-level programs specifically supporting the development of solar and other renewable energy technologies. In Montana, we have the Alternative Energy Revolving Loan Program (AERLP). This program was established by the Montana Legislature in 2001 and provides zero-down, low-interest loans of up to $40,000 to individuals, small businesses, nonprofit organizations, and government entities in order to increase investments in alternative energy systems and energy conservation measures in Montana. The program, managed by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s Energy Office, has financed more than 500 renewable energy installations across the state since its first loan in 2003. States also often offer tax incentives or rebates for renewable energy installations, which are great options to help lower the up-front cost of the installation. Reach out to your state energy office or solar advocacy group to ask what options your state offers.

Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs are becoming more popular across the country. PACE programs offer the opportunity to finance the up-front cost of an installation and then pay back that cost as an assessment on the property taxes of the building or location where the system was installed. One of the greatest benefits is that the cost of the system is tied to the location, making for a simpler process if there is a change in ownership. The nuances of these programs are important and will vary from state to state. For example, the recently adopted PACE program in Montana is only available to commercial entities.

Your utility may offer discounts, rebates, or other incentives that can help with the cost of renewable energy and/or energy efficiency technologies. In Montana, we have the Universal Systems Benefits (USB) program. Our largest investor-owned utility, NorthWestern Energy, administers this state-authorized incentive program through its “E+ Renewable Energy Program” to qualifying non-profit organizations, government agencies, and schools in NorthWestern Energy’s Montana service territory. Projects receiving these funds often provide civic value, including education and visible representation of renewable energy technologies to a broad audience. The Montana USB program provides grants, but other utility territories may offer programs with discounts or rebates on certain energy efficiency products. Reach out to your energy provider to ask what incentives it offers. 

Private financial institutions are beginning to offer their own renewable-energy focused products. For example, Clearwater Credit Union (based in Missoula, MT) offers two home energy loans: an unsecured, easy-access Home Solar Loan; and a Home Energy Efficiency Loan. Because it is a private institution (and not a state agency), the credit union can usually offer a decision in minutes. These options can be particularly attractive for businesses or households that already have an account with that institution.

Third-party financing is another option to consider. In this scenario, a private, third-party financer will develop a solar project on leased or purchased land or roof space. The financer provides the capital and, in doing so, is often able to take advantage of tax breaks that can lower the overall project cost. They enter into a contract with the system host (i.e., the building or land owner) who then benefits from the project by receiving the energy produced on-site. The host may pay the financer a regular payment (fixed or otherwise) related to the value of the energy delivered. At the end of the contract term, the host may also have an option to purchase the system from the financer. The crux is finding a third-party financer you are comfortable working with. These types of contracts can be technical, and the nuances are very important. If you are interested in this model, I recommend working with a legal expert to make sure you understand the terms and conditions of any agreement that you sign. Missoula County recently worked on the first third-party financed system in Montana. MREA hosted a webinar about the experience, and about third-party financing in general. A link to the recording is provided below.

A closing note on tax incentives (generally): Be sure to consult with a tax professional to ensure that these options are available to you. Unless the tax credit is specifically noted as refundable, you must have a sufficient tax liability to claim the value of the credit. For example, the Federal ITC is not currently refundable (though SEIA and other solar advocates have lobbied Congress to make it so).

As you can see, there are varied options available to help with the cost of a solar installation. However, the nuances are important and can drive the cost and savings that you will eventually realize. As you explore these different options, be sure to reach out to local solar advocates and legal and tax experts in your area with any clarifying questions.

Resources:

Federal ITC (for businesses)

Federal ITC (for residences)

USDA REAP Program

IIJA funding opportunities

MREA webinar on Third-Party Financing

Montana-specific Programs and Examples:

MREA website on financing and incentives

Alternative Energy Revolving Loan Program

Clearwater Credit Union energy loans

Northwestern Energy E+ Renewable Incentives


[1] Solar Energy Industries Association. (2022). “Solar Industry Research Data.” https://www.seia.org/solar-industry-research-data

Written By: Amanda Gersoff (M.Sc. student), Dr. Seeta Sistla

Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences Department, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo

Our team is studying the ecological aspects of utility-scale solar arrays set on former agricultural land whose understory is maintained by sheep grazing. By gaining a better understanding of the ecological implications associated with panel shading coupled with grazing by sheep, we hope to develop insights into agrivoltaic development that can maximize positive environmental effects while reducing negative externalities. We are currently focusing on two utility-scale solar energy sites located in San Luis Obispo County, California. At these sites, we conduct weekly monitoring to measure surface microclimatic features, soil nutrient cycling processes, and plant community composition.

Collecting soil cores at Topaz Solar Farm. Photo: Amanda Gersoff
Collecting aboveground biomass samples at Topaz Solar Farm. Photo: Amanda Gersoff

We hypothesized that the novel shading caused by the arrays will affect plant and soil dynamics, including decomposition, biomass production, plant moisture content, the timing of plant community events (like flowering duration and time to senescence) and plant nutrient content. Our work has suggested that placing arrays in arid grazing landscapes that are emblematic of the western U.S. can confer synergistic benefits for the plant community and their grazers. For example, our work has found that the plant mass beneath the array rows has high water content, greater nitrogen content (correlated with higher soil plant-available nitrogen), and lower non-digestible fiber content than areas that are grazed but outside the arrays’ direct shading influence. We are currently tracking phenological patterns of greenness and flowering time/duration in the array, to better understand if the traits we are observing correlate with an extension of the growing season for the community with the array’s shading area.

Over the next year, we will continue monitoring to gain a more comprehensive understanding of how exactly spatial heterogeneity created by panel shading influences ecological systems. At both sites, the practice of solar grazing, in which sheep are used to maintain vegetation under solar panels, has been implemented. By combining agricultural and renewable energy production, also known as agrivoltaics, multiple benefits can be realized. Utilizing rotational grazing by sheep is beneficial because it can reduce the costs of mowing and maintenance, support local shepherds, cultivate biodiversity, cycle nutrients into the soil, and decrease the risk of sparks igniting dried grasses. As utility-scale solar energy grows, it is important to look to dual-use solar for increasing efficiency and maximizing environmental benefits.

Rotational grazing by sheep at Goldtree Solar Farm. Photo: Amanda Gersoff
Patterns of phenological differences  vegetation due to shading at Topaz Solar Farm.  Photo: Amanda Gersoff
Owl’s clover (Castilleja exserta): An annual native wildflower common in the rows adjacent to panels at Topaz solar Farm. Photo: Amanda Gersoff

By Lee Walston and Heidi Hartmann, Argonne National Laboratory

Pollinator habitat at a solar facility in Minnesota. Photo: Lee Walston, Argonne National Laboratory.

Many of us have witnessed regional land-use transformations towards renewable energy in the last decade. As the fastest growing electricity generating sector in the U.S., solar energy development has grown more than 20x in the past decade and is projected to be the dominant renewable source of electricity by 2040. The recent DOE Solar Futures Study predicts that over 1 terawatt (TW) of utility-scale solar electricity developments will be required to meet net-zero clean-energy objectives in the U.S. by 2050 (Figure 1). This represents a solar land-use footprint of over 10 million acres across the U.S. – roughly the combined area  of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

Figure 1. Source: Solar Futures Study

A fundamental question we all face is how to balance solar energy development with other land uses such as agriculture. Given the current and projected land-use requirements, sustained development of solar energy will depend on finding renewable energy solutions that optimize the combined outputs of energy production, ecosystem services, and other land uses. Dual land-use approaches that co-locate solar energy with other forms of land uses, such as agriculture or habitat restoration, have emerged as promising strategies to improving the landscape compatibility of solar energy. The establishment of native pollinator-friendly vegetation at solar facilities (“solar-pollinator habitat”) is one strategy to improve the multifunctionality of these lands that not only provide renewable energy but also offer several ecosystem service benefits such as: (1) biodiversity conservation; (2) stormwater and erosion control; (3) carbon sequestration; and (4) benefits to nearby agricultural fields.

Understanding the true ecosystem service benefits of solar-pollinator habitat will require field studies in different geographic regions to examine the methods of solar-pollinator habitat establishment and link these processes with measured ecosystem service outputs. Given the time required to conduct these direct field studies, most discussions of solar-pollinator habitat thus far have centered on qualitative ecosystem outcomes. Fortunately, there are ways to quantitatively understand some of these potential outcomes. Native habitat restoration has been a focus of scientific research for many years, and we can use these studies to understand the regional methods for solar pollinator habitat establishment (e.g., types of seed mixes, vegetation management) and relate these habitat restoration activities with quantifiable ecosystem responses. For example, there are decades of research on the restoration of the prairie grassland systems in the Midwest and Great Plains – regions that have seen losses of over 90% of their native grasslands due to agricultural expansion.

Because many solar facilities in the Midwest are sited on former agricultural fields, research on ecological restoration of former agricultural fields could be very useful in understanding the establishment and performance of solar-pollinator habitat in the same region. We can look to these studies as surrogate study systems for solar-pollinator habitat and utilize the data from these studies to make inferences on the ecosystem outcomes of solar-pollinator habitat. Along with a team of research partners, we recently took this approach to quantify the potential ecosystem services of solar-pollinator habitat in the Midwest. Our goal was to understand how solar energy developments co-located with pollinator-friendly native vegetation may improve ecosystem services compared to other traditional land uses. We began by reviewing the literature to collect a range of data on vegetation associated with three different land uses: agriculture, solar-turfgrass, and solar-pollinator habitat. The data for each land use included information on vegetation types, root depths, carbon storage potential, and evapotranspiration, to name a few.  

We then developed ecosystem service models for each land use scenario. The land uses corresponded to the following scenarios (Figure 2):

1. Agriculture scenario (baseline “pre-solar” land use);

2. Solar-turfgrass (“business as usual” solar-turfgrass land use) and

3. Solar-pollinator habitat (grassland restoration at solar sites).

We mapped and delineated 30 solar sites in the Midwest and used the InVEST modeling tool to model the following four ecosystem services across all sites and land-use scenarios:

Figure 2. Illustration of land use scenarios at each solar site. Source: Walston et al., 2021.

Our results, published in the journal Ecosystem Services, found that, compared to traditional agricultural land uses, solar facilities with sitewide co‑located, pollinator‑friendly vegetation produced a three-fold increase in pollinator habitat quality and a 65% increase in carbon storage potential. The models also showed that solar-pollinator habitat increased the site’s potential to control sedimentation and runoff by more than 95% and 19%, respectively (Figure 3). This study suggests that in regions where native grasslands have been lost to farming and other activities native grassland restoration at solar energy facilities could represent a win‑win for energy and the environment.

What do these results mean? We hope these results can help industry, communities, regulators, and policymakers better understand the potential ecosystem benefits of solar-pollinator habitat. These findings may be used to build cooperative relationships between the solar industry and surrounding communities to better integrate solar energy into agricultural landscapes. While our study provides a quantitative basis for understanding these potential ecosystem benefits, additional work is needed to validate model results and collect the primary data that would support economic evaluations to inform solar-native grassland business decisions for the solar industry and quantify the economic benefits of services provided to nearby farmers, landowners, and other stakeholders.

Figure 3. Average ecosystem service values for the thirty Midwest solar facilities modeled with InVEST: (A) pollinator supply; (B) carbon storage; (C) sediment export; and (D) water retention. Source: Walston et al. 2021.

It should come as no surprise that farmers are busy people. Success in farming requires hard work and long days, not to mention staying up to speed on farming practices and technologies. As renewable energy deployment on farmland becomes more common, farmers can face challenges understanding how to site and maintain these systems.

Drew Shiavone of the University of Maryland is meeting farmers where they are by providing digestible information on farm-based solar photovoltaics (PV) via 10- to 15-minute YouTube clips. The “Solar Clips” video series shows practical, step-by-step tutorials on various phases of the solar installation and maintenance process, from site assessment and shading analysis to wiring panels and replacing diodes. The series was created by Shiavone under a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant that will expand solar installations on farms in Maryland.

The grant project, led by Shiavone, is focusing on “train-the-trainer” workshops that will allow Extension agents and other agriculture service providers in the region to deliver education and training to farmers on topics such as solar PV technology basics, on-farm applications, and solar contracts and leasing options.

Along with the common “not in my backyard” mentality or concerns for the local economy, aversion to renewable energy installations is also often rooted in a lack of knowledge about the technology. Educational tools such as the Solar Clips series can help close the knowledge gap for farmers and increase support for on-farm renewable energy development. By empowering the farmer through practical solutions, agricultural production and decarbonization efforts are strengthened.

By Alexis Pascaris

What if we shifted our perspective to view Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) syndrome as an occasion for innovation? What if we strategically integrated local community interests into a solar project, rather than grappling to override them? Luckily, embodying these ideals may not be as lofty as it seems.

Combining agriculture and solar energy production in an agrivoltaic system shows promise as a sensible method to reduce siting conflict, generate rural economic opportunity, and ultimately increase social acceptance of solar. The majority of the solar professionals interviewed in a recent study on industry perspectives about agrivoltaics discussed the great potential to leverage these systems strategically to retain local agricultural interests in project development and consequently gain receptivity in a community. Minimizing threat to existing community interests by pursuing a dual-use project provides a distinct advantage over traditional ground-mounted solar projects, which are often challenged on the basis of land conservation and farm preservation values.

But do solar energy deployment and farmland preservation have to be mutually exclusive pursuits? Can the agrivoltaic solution properly reconcile these competing interests in a way that benefits all stakeholders?

Jack’s Solar Garden. Longmont, CO. Photo: Thomas Hickey
Jack’s Solar Garden. Longmont, CO. Photo: Thomas Hickey

Let’s consider for a moment that we are at a delicate yet opportune inflection point in large-scale solar deployment. Previous case studies exemplify how the community relation component of project development has rippling consequences (both positive and negative) on our ability to sustain the build-out rate of solar. Poorly developed projects perpetuate lack of trust in developers, resistance from rural communities and ag-interest groups, as well as restrictive land use policy. Research concerned with New England’s energy transition evaluated the factors that contribute to energy project outcomes, finding that stakeholder relations is instrumental, and that social conflict is a key contributor to project failure. Collaboratively designed projects that generate co-benefits leave a legacy of community pride and positive perception about solar. The Long Island Solar Roadmap Project demonstrates how the solar development process can be enhanced through stakeholder engagement, which includes incorporating community preferences in project siting and design.

Based on precedence, the path of least resistance is clear – to meet our ambitious renewable energy targets, we must develop innovative, inclusive practices to minimize siting conflict and harmonize solar deployment goals with existing community interests. By upholding community values and agricultural interests in a solar project, agrivoltaics provide a means to enhance development practice remarkably well.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. Last spring, we surveyed two U.S. counties to investigate whether public support for solar increases when a project incorporates agricultural production. Survey respondents indicated that they would be more likely to support solar development in their community if it combined energy and agriculture. The study further investigated the importance of a range of planning and development factors – land type, distribution of project benefits, and impacts on local interests were determined to be of highest priority to community members when considering their support for a solar project. These findings imply the importance of community engagement in the planning process and suggest that a solar project designed to maintain the agricultural function of land is likely to experience receptivity rather than resistance – a valuable co-benefit of the agrivoltaic approach.

Thinking long-term about our commitments to sustain the deployment rate of solar not only includes optimizing economic and technical efficiency but fostering social acceptance as well. “Social acceptance” can either be our mighty ally, or a formidable opponent to our solar development pursuits. The agrivoltaic solution illuminates a pathway to alleviate siting conflict, generate localized benefits, and contribute to a legacy of solar projects everyone is proud of.

What if all future solar systems served a greater purpose than electricity generation? Would you be more likely to support them in your backyard?

The AgriSolar Clearinghouse is partnering with the American Solar Grazing Association to run a series of joint educational agrivoltaic webinar presentations, known as Teatimes. These events are free and open to the public, and recordings will be broadcast on the AgriSolar Media hub if you can’t make the live event. 

The series will start April 21, with the presentation Leasing for Community and Grid-Scale Solar – Key Considerations While Negotiating, by Tom Murphy, the Director of Penn State’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research (MCOR). To join the webinar, use this link, meeting ID, and passcode:

Zoom link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/81562414717?pwd=b2xnQ3hCQk1nMkh3aGM5dzRHS2JIZz09
Meeting ID: 815 6241 4717
Passcode: 414544

ASGA is  founded by farmers for farmers and solar professionals. They swap stories, best practices, and good ideas about solar grazing. We are excited to bring their valuable experience and expertise to the AgriSolar Clearinghouse network and hope this partnership will help foster connections, promote best practices, and provide support for solar graziers around the country.

Check out our events page for future dates, topics, and sign-up information.

By Dr. Stacie Peterson

The interdisciplinary research at Biosphere 2 and Manzo Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona is foundational for agrivoltaics in the United States.  My first introduction to agrivoltaics came from research at these sites, in the article Agrivoltaics Provide Mutual Benefits Across the Food-Energy-Water Nexus in Drylands. The opportunity to tour these sites, meet the researchers, and provide the AgriSolar Clearinghouse network with a way to connect was exciting indeed.

The tour started at the Biosphere 2 site, where Dr. Greg Barron-Gafford and graduate students Kai Lepley, Alyssa Salazar, Nesrine Rouini, and Caleb Ortega described their research, findings, and future projects. Greg provided a background of Biosphere 2, research conducted at the site, its application to agrivoltaics throughout the country, and its correlation to work at the Manzo Agrivoltaic site.    

Kai Lepley and Nesrine Rousini then described their work employing classic plant physiological instruments and novel ground-based remote sensing tools for tracking plant phenology and growth.  Alyssa Salazar described her studies on agrivoltaics impacts to the phenology and growing season patterns of different crops across our growing seasons and how this research can help determine how this approach might extend the growing seasons of certain crops.  Caleb Ortega described his planting approach as well as efficient and creative ways of collecting data.  They then asked the tour to help plant seeds for next years’ agrivoltaic experiments.

After a tour of the Biosphere 2 complex, the group travelled to Manzo Elementary Agrivoltaic site, where Mariah Rogers, Mira Kaibara, Stacy Evans, and Dr. Andrea Gerlak led a lunch-and-learn about the food science, social science, citizen science, student activities, and agrivoltaic food programs.  Mariah’s research involves blind taste tests of agrivoltaic and traditionally grown crops to determine if there are detectable differences in preference.

Dr. Andrea Gerlak, professor of Public Policy at the University of Arizona with extensive experience working on water resource policy and management issues, described her research, and its correlation to work by Alexis Pascaris, and their collaboration on the USDA-NIFA grant for agrivoltaics research (SCAPES project). Alexis is a social scientist whose research involves engaging key stakeholders – including farmers and solar industry professionals – to understand their perspectives about opportunities and barriers to agrivoltaics, which helps inform policy innovation and identify pathways to advance dual-use development responsibly. 

We were lucky enough to be joined by Alexis Pascaris of AgriSolar Consulting, Thomas Hickey of Sandbox Solar, Gema Martinez of BayWa r.e., Brian Naughton of Circle Two and Sandia National Laboratories, Mark Peterson of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, and AgriSolar Clearinghouse Partner Coordinator, Danielle Miska. In coming months, we will lead tours to Minnesota, Colorado, Oregon, California, Massachusetts, Idaho, New York, and Texas. We hope you’ll join us! 

By Lindsay Mouw, Center for Rural Affairs

What’s the latest buzz about solar energy? It’s likely the thousands of honey bees that call solar fields home.

Commonly referred to as “agrisolar beekeeping,” the practice of placing beehives on or near solar fields is a burgeoning industry. While photovoltaic panels are generating energy from the sun, bees are busy at work making honey and pollinating the native and non-invasive plant species below the panels.

This business model creates a multi-stacking of benefits by using the land for multiple purposes simultaneously. When solar panel fields are planted with native and non-invasive plant species, not only is that land generating carbon-free energy, but also providing critical habitat for bees, monarch butterflies, and other insects, birds, and animals. It also creates new economic opportunities for local beekeepers and for the community in the form of energy generation tax payments.

As solar developers become aware of these benefits and strive to demonstrate responsible land stewardship, they are reaching out to beekeepers, such as Dustin Vanasse, CEO of Bare Honey based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who may be interested in this practice. When a developer reaches out, Dustin says it is best that the two parties draft a contract that outlines expectations and responsibilities in order to establish a sound relationship with no surprises before moving forward with a project.

August 30, 2018 – Minnesota bee keeper, Jim Degiovanni, inspects “BareHoney” hives outside IMS Solar, a pollinator friendly PV array site in St. Joseph, MN. Early in growth, IMS Solar site uses a diverse mix of pollinator-friendly native flowers and grasses, and is co-located with a collection of beehives. (Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL)

According to Vanasse, the most common practice is to place hives just outside the fence of the solar field for liability and insurance reasons. Therefore, the beekeeper will need to ensure there is enough right-of-way space for the hives and to maneuver any necessary equipment. The responsibility of managing the pollinator species should be outlined in the contract as well but is typically the responsibility of a vegetation management service contracted with the project developer.

Vanasse also noted that it is helpful to obtain the seed mix of the site and management calendar from the developer to inform handling of the bee colonies. To meet pollinator goals, a vegetation management calendar should accommodate bloom seasons to ensure the bees have access to the diversity of species at the site.

Joel Fassbinder, a solar beekeeper in Decorah, Iowa, and owner of Highlandville Honey Farm, suggests waiting to place hives on agrisolar locations until the second or third year after the groundcover has been seeded to allow time for the seed to take hold and develop bountiful flowers.

“I also register my bees on Field Watch, a tool that communicates between beekeepers and pesticide applicators,” Fassbinder said.

Joel Fassbinder

Solar beekeepers are seeing an increasing opportunity in the market for their solar-grown honey products.

“Anymore, customers want more than just a good tasting product, they also want to support environmental work,” Vanasse said.

However, as the demand for environmentally responsible products has grown, so has the concern of greenwashing tactics employed by companies that make green claims or use misleading marketing and labeling without actually taking meaningful steps to generate a sustainable or environmentally responsible product. Vanasse said transparency in their operations is key. He frequently brings people out to his agrisolar beekeeping sites so they can see the multi-use purposes of the facilities and provides education services about the industry to project developers, county elected officials, schools, and beekeeper groups.

Vanasse noted that the state of Minnesota requires all ground-mounted installations to complete a solar pollinator scorecard  during the planning stage and after the establishment period of three years. This scorecard ensures the quality of pollinator habitat at the site is reported to the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. The scorecard is part of Minnesota’s Habitat Friendly Solar Program, a result of state policy that requires verification of adhering to the standards set by the Board of Water and Soil Resources.

Planting solar sites with pollinator species is quickly becoming the norm, in part because of policies like those in Minnesota and New York. In 2018, New York passed a bill that established a vegetation standard for ground-mounted solar arrays. Such policies are promoting numerous environmental benefits and new opportunities for beekeepers.

“Consistently our best performing hives are located on the agrisolar pollinator sites,” Vanasse said. “These hives have a more diverse source of pollen as opposed to a monocrop site; the abundance and diversity of plants lead to a more balanced and diverse diet for the bees, making the hives stronger.”

Fassbinder agrees and says “overall agrisolar beekeeping has been a very positive experience.”

Nearby farmers also benefit from the hives through increased pollination of their crops, especially those that are pollinator-dependent, such as berries, apples, squash, and pumpkins. Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory found in a case study that there are 1.1 million hectares of land designated as proposed or potential solar sites in the U.S. The estimated value of pollinator habitats on the hectares of land that are suitable for pollinator habitat is between $1.5 billion and $3.2 billion.

For beekeepers interested in getting into the photovoltaic beekeeping industry, Vanasse and Fassbinder recommend reaching out to Bare Honey or the solar project developer, whose information is usually available on a fence sign surrounding the project.

Guest blog post by Monarch Joint Venture

Up to 99% of native northern tallgrass prairie in the U.S. has disappeared since European settlement (Samson and Knopf, 1994). This loss of habitat is devastating for pollinators including the iconic monarch butterfly, which depends on native milkweed species and a variety of nectar plants to survive. Given this stark situation, one of the most impactful conservation actions any of us can take is to plant and maintain native habitat, whether it’s a backyard pocket prairie or a large-scale restoration. Many sectors, from agriculture to managed public lands to transportation rights-of-way, are exploring the benefits of pollinator-friendly habitat. Renewable energy is no different; in fact this sector has been a pioneer in the field…the solar field, that is.

In recent years, pollinator-friendly habitat creation on photovoltaic (PV) solar sites has gained momentum across the country, with Minnesota among the earliest adopters. In 2016, Minnesota became the first state to incentivize pollinator-friendly ground cover on its solar energy sites through Minnesota Statute 216B.1642. This development came on the heels of the 2015 National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and other Pollinators, which catalyzed new conservation strategies across the nation.

“Minnesotans value conservation and pollinator health, so it’s natural that Minnesota is a leader in this area. You also see this in the preferences expressed by leading electric utilities like Connexus and Xcel,” says Rob Davis of Connexus Energy, which participated in the short documentary, “Pollinators, Prairie, and Power,” last year. “Whether a co-op like Connexus or a private or investor-owned company, energy buyers of all kinds can use the standards published by the state’s leading pollinator experts to express preferences in their renewable energy purchasing. It’s never been easier for energy buyers to ask for high-quality habitat as a ground cover for PV solar—there are numerous developers competing to win these projects.” 

This increasing interest is timely: Between 300,000 and 400,000 acres or land in the U.S. are currently being used for ground-mounted PV solar, and studies predict that 3-5 million acres of large-scale solar will be added to the landscape by 2035. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, solar accounted for 54% of all new electricity-generating capacity added in the U.S. in the first three quarters of 2021, with projections for growth holding steady. Now is definitely the time to quantify the benefits of habitat-friendly landscaping among solar arrays, and that’s where the Monarch Joint Venture comes in.

During the summer of 2021, MJV partnered with Minnesota-based nonprofit Fresh Energy to monitor pollinator-friendly habitat on Minnesota solar developments. Founded in 1990, Fresh Energy works to shape and drive policy solutions to achieve equitable carbon-neutral economies, including habitat-friendly solar.

“We wanted to begin quantifying the impacts of pollinator-friendly solar on Minnesota’s pollinator populations,” says Michael Noble, executive director at Fresh Energy. “Habitat plantings under solar arrays can add a small amount to the cost of a solar development project, but this study shows that it’s an investment well worth making for the benefit of Minnesota’s critical pollinators.”

Using data collected during the study, MJV and Fresh Energy have released the Monitoring Pollinators on Minnesota Solar Installations report to demonstrate the potential benefits of using pollinator-friendly ground cover with solar arrays in Minnesota—as well as areas that need further research. Fresh Energy will be hosting a deeper dive into the report’s findings in a webinar on May 18th. Learn more and register here.

For the study, MJV National Monitoring Coordinator Laura Lukens surveyed four PV solar installations during June, July, and August 2021 to measure the abundance and species composition of milkweeds and flowering plants, as well as use by monarch butterflies and other pollinators. Survey and sampling protocols were designed in consultation with Argonne National Laboratory, which, in partnership with NREL’s InSPIRE study, has published research on use of native plants as solar array ground cover. The sites were located in Anoka and Ramsey counties, ranged in size from 18-68 acres, and were seeded with a native pollinator mix in either 2017 or 2018. A completed copy of Minnesota’s Habitat Friendly Solar Scorecard was available for each site. This monitoring provides essential information for solar site operators and other stakeholders to create long-term management plans to keep native ground cover thriving, and contributes to a growing amount of evidence that habitat-friendly solar sites can provide significant benefits to pollinators.

“Monitoring this habitat is important for many reasons,” says Laura. “Field surveys allow us to investigate potential impacts of solar array canopies on plant and pollinator communities and provide empirical evidence to back up what we suspect as being benefits of habitat in these spaces. With solar projected to grow by millions of acres in the next 15 years, this presents an exciting opportunity for the renewable energy sector to contribute to national pollinator and habitat conservation goals.” With more and more energy companies adopting habitat-friendly solar, this is good news indeed for pollinator conservation.

While surveying, Laura utilized a variety of monitoring protocols, including the Integrated Monarch Monitoring Program (IMMP), the MJV-administered national program that collects milkweed, flowering plant, and monarch use data from a variety of land-cover types and regions. Utilized by researchers and land managers, the IMMP also is a robust community science program designed for public participation. IMMP community and professional scientists contribute important data that are then utilized by monarch and pollinator conservationists and policymakers. 

In a nutshell, over the course of the monitoring project, Laura observed a high number of flowering plant species and an abundance of bees, butterflies, moths, flies, and wasps flourishing within and adjacent to the solar arrays. “These results indicate that pollinators utilized habitat regardless of solar panel presence,” Laura shares. “And this suggests that solar installations in Minnesota can indeed provide quality breeding and foraging habitat for monarchs and other pollinators.” 

At the same time, the project was limited in scope, and represents preliminary findings. Continued long-term data collection is critical for monitoring the status and trends of pollinator populations, investigating other co-benefits of solar habitat, and to ensure that pollinator-friendly practices achieve and maintain desired outcomes. Management of these sites will also be key to ensuring that habitat quality does not degrade through time.

Other researchers are studying additional co-benefits of habitat-friendly solar. For instance, PV-SMaRT, a collaborative project by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Great Plains Institute, Fresh Energy, and the University of Minnesota, is studying stormwater infiltration and runoff at PV solar sites across the U.S. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Solar Energy Technology Office is funding a four-year study investigating the impacts of co-location of pollinator plantings at large-scale solar installations (>10 MW), led by the University of Illinois, Chicago, in partnership with Argonne National Laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Cardno (now Stantec). One of this project’s goals is to create tangible guidance and tools for industry use (e.g. pollinator planting implementation manual, solar site seed selection tool, pollinator solar field assessment tool, and cost-benefit calculator).

In addition to benefits for pollinators and other organisms, native ground cover on PV solar sites can also promote soil health, improve water quality, reduce runoff, and may even boost electrical output, especially on warmer days, by keeping the microclimate near the ground cooler. 

“Overall, habitat on solar arrays by itself will not solve the biodiversity crisis or arrest the decline in the monarch or other species,” Rob Davis adds. “However, solar with pollinator-friendly ground cover is setting a beneficial example for other developments to follow. All these things together with additional actions to conserve previously undisturbed lands and set more acres aside dedicated to conservation, through the USDA’s CRP and other programs, will benefit biodiversity and overall human health.”