Ecosystem Enriching and Efficient Solar Energy: Exploring the Effects of Pollinator-Friendly Solar Facilities on Ecosystem Function and Solar Panel Efficiency
As the solar energy industry grows, many hundreds of thousands of acres of land will be transformed into solar panel facilities. With this large change in land use, there is the opportunity to promote biodiversity and support pollinators by using pollinator-friendly management practices at the solar facilities. This paper explores the ecological and economic effects of a pollinator-friendly solar facility compared to a turfgrass solar facility. The researcher hypothesized that a pollinator-friendly solar facility would be functionally equivalent in pollinator support and overall insect diversity to a pollinator-friendly non-solar field and that both sites would have far greater pollinator support and insect diversity than a turfgrass solar field. To test this hypothesis, vegetation and insect sampling were conducted and the resulting data were analyzed for differences in vegetative and insect diversity and pollinator abundance at a pollinator-friendly solar facility, a turfgrass solar facility, and a reference non-solar pollinator-friendly field. The diversity analysis revealed that the pollinator-friendly solar site was overall functionally equivalent to the non-solar pollinator-friendly site and the turfgrass solar site had low insect and vegetative diversity, but high insect abundance. Photovoltaic solar panel energy production is negatively affected by high temperatures. Therefore, to maximize energy production and promote biodiversity native forbs may be incorporated into a solar facility landscape to cool the solar panels by the cooling effect of transpiration and produce more energy than a traditional turfgrass landscaped solar facility throughout the growing season. Overall, this study supports the idea that pollinator-friendly landscapes could be more economically viable, as pertaining to energy output, and more ecologically beneficial compared to turfgrass. More research is necessary to further investigate and test the patterns seen at only these two solar sites, but these results are encouraging for the future widespread implementation of pollinator-friendly management practices in solar facilities across the Mid-Atlantic.