Tag Archive for: Center for rural affairs

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.

Written By: Cody Smith

As communities across the nation continue to embrace a future powered by clean energy, new solar farms are offering an opportunity to pair economic development and conservation goals. As landowners, project developers, and local officials work to enhance the value of these new project sites for the communities hosting them, investments in native vegetation can open the door for a variety of opportunities to grow the local economy while simultaneously promoting clean water, soil health, and wildlife habitat.

Solar energy is rapidly expanding in many states as utilities and consumers seek cheaper, cleaner alternatives to meet their needs. In fact, in 2020 the utility-scale solar industry grew by 26%, fueling the rise of renewables to be the second most prevalent source of electricity generation in the U.S. that year. With increased solar deployment, many communities are enjoying new jobs and tax revenue. In fact, across the Midwest, the solar industry employed nearly 37,000 workers as of 2019.

Source: Amplifying Clean Energy with Conservation: Part One: Pollinator-Friendly Solar. Center for Rural Affairs.

As more project sites are selected and leases are negotiated between landowners and project developers, prioritizing these investments can ensure that these new sites add value to all stakeholders in the process. Investments in native vegetation have been shown to increase the populations of pollinating insects, such as honey bees and native bees, by as much as three and a half times more than sites without such investments, according to the Iowa State University STRIPS Project. Meanwhile, vulnerable birds, such as the sedge wren in the Midwest, can utilize these new investments as much-needed habitat, helping protect wildlife biodiversity.

Well-maintained native vegetation is also an effective practice for improving water quality. Even modest investments in perennial native vegetation have demonstrated a 60 percent reduction in nitrogen loss and a 90 percent reduction in phosphorus loss to surrounding lakes, rivers, and streams. Retaining those nutrients on-site helps prevent the damaging impacts of harmful algal blooms in the watershed and improves overall soil health.

A common concern among landowners and residents debating whether or not utility-scale solar is a good fit for their community is the loss of productive agricultural land for this purpose. Local officials and developers should not stray away from these challenging conversations, though it is important to highlight these sites as an opportunity to continue agricultural production, even if it looks different than a traditional crop rotation of corn and soybeans. By introducing livestock grazing with a robust rotational grazing plan, farmers can both continue to diversify their incomes and grow the local economy without minimizing the positive environmental impacts described above.

In all, investments in native vegetation on solar project sites have shown they can both complement economic development goals and improve environmental conditions for the surrounding community, adding significant value to the projects. As developers, local officials, and landowners continue to contemplate whether or not pollinator-friendly solar is a good fit for them, this webinar titled Native Vegetation + Solar Energy from the Center for Rural Affairs can serve as a resource for planning for, managing, and implementing these types of projects.

Hosted By Cody Smith

Original Post by Center for Rural Affairs on April 27,2020

Cody Smith, policy associate at the Center for Rural Affairs, hosts this webinar on best management practices for implementing native vegetation on solar project sites in the region with Rob Davis, director of the Center for Pollinators in Energy at Fresh Energy. 

Discussion includes native seed mix selections for solar sites, management options for site operators and options for communities to require this practical co-use on solar sites. Other topics include planning, total cost of implementation, seeding methods and construction considerations.

“This webinar aims to serve as a resource for community leaders, project developers, utility professionals, and soil and water conservation experts so they can take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity for mutually-beneficial investments in conservation,” Smith said. 

By Heidi Kolbeck-Urlacher, Senior Policy Associate, Center for Rural Affairs 

On a chilly September afternoon, a flock of Targhee/Rambouillet cross sheep quietly wander the grounds of an 18-acre solar garden site in southwestern Minnesota. The sheep are fulfilling a duty known as solar grazing, which uses livestock to manage vegetation at solar sites. 

Replacing traditional mowing, solar grazing offers numerous environmental and financial benefits. 

“Environmentally, you’re allowing a diverse plant community to grow, which increases soil health over time, reduces erosion, and increases pollinator habitat,” said Audrey Lomax, manager of the solar grazing program at Minnesota Native Landscapes. “Economically, farmers can supplement their income and grow their business, and developers see a cost savings as they spend less over time to manage the sites.” 

The rapid growth of the solar energy industry means more acres of land will be needed to host these projects. 

“Whether people like solar or not, it’s a rapidly growing reality, and the land that is used must be managed,” said Trent Hendricks, who operates Cabriejo Ranch in West Plains, Missouri, and provides regenerative grazing services to utility-scale solar farms. “Grazing provides numerous benefits that can’t be realized through paving or mowing. This includes carbon sequestration, increasing biodiversity, providing habitat for wildlife like ground-nesting birds, and keeping land in agricultural use by supporting lamb production.” 

The sheep at the site are owned by Matt Brehmer, a beginning farmer from Brookings, South Dakota. Matt recently bought a farm and purchased livestock a year ago. His pasture won’t support both cows and sheep, so working as a solar grazier gives him additional pasture opportunities and helps support his business. 

“I heard about solar grazing from another farmer who was doing it,” Matt said. “After trying it for a season, I plan to do it again and would recommend it to others.” 

Audrey said solar grazing is something more farmers should consider. 

“This is a high-value service that can allow farmers to grow their business, and even their flock, without land,” she said. “This is especially true for beginning farmers who often don’t have infrastructural support or access to land.” 

As the solar industry continues to grow, practices like solar grazing can play an important role in ensuring clean energy, environmental, and agricultural goals can be achieved together. Some states, such as Massachusetts and New Jersey, have created policies to incentivize the dual-use of solar with agriculture. 

“If we are going to promote solar as an energy solution, we have a responsibility to also ensure good land management,” Trent said. “With grazing, we can keep animals on the land and keep it in food production.”