Pollinator-Friendly Solar Could be a Win-Win for Climate and Landowners, but Greenwashing is a Worry

Solar developers are planting native flowers and grasses near—or even in between—solar panels, addressing the twin problems of pollinator decline and climate change.

Last year, Clif unveiled a two-megawatt, five-acre solar farm with pollinator-friendly habitat at its bakery in Twin Falls, Idaho. Credit: Jared Lauritsen

Last year, Clif unveiled a two-megawatt, five-acre solar farm with pollinator-friendly habitat at its bakery in Twin Falls, Idaho. Credit: Jared Lauritsen

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Between a colorful array of wildflowers and the harmonious buzz of bees and butterflies circling overhead, the aesthetics alone of so called pollinator-friendly solar farms may intrigue developers—making for easy marketing.

But proponents say the incentives for incorporating native grasses and wildflowers throughout a solar plant extend far beyond flashy advertising.

Research published by Yale’s Center for Business and the Environment has found that pollinator-friendly solar can boost crop yields, increase the recharging of groundwater, reduce soil erosion and provide long-term cost savings in operations and maintenance. The research also found that by creating a cooler microclimate, perennial vegetation can increase the efficiency of solar panels, upping their energy output. 

“I saw this as a potential way to smooth the path forward for increased solar development,” said Katie Siegner, an associate with the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Electricity practice who co-authored the Yale report, referring to the advantages the authors described.

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Siegner said she hoped the findings could help debunk fears of solar projects supplanting agricultural land, by showing one way that they could help support local farmers and bring new social, environmental and economic benefits to rural communities. 

The ability to build bridges with local communities is just one reason pollinator-friendly solar projects have become a growing trend in recent years among utilities, solar developers and companies that are looking more broadly to make a positive social and environmental impact, while reducing their carbon footprint. 

Bees and other pollinator populations have steadily declined in recent years, in part as a result of climate change, a trend that a 2020 study found could threaten U.S. crop yields and even pose risks to global food security. 

Pollinator-friendly solar provides an approach to both the pollinator crisis and the climate crisis that is attractive aesthetically and economically, and potentially scalable. By planting a deep-rooted mix of native flowers and grasses around and even between solar panels that can provide abundant and healthy food for pollinators, developers can provide clean energy while also expanding pollinator habitat.

Just this year, the California nonprofit renewable electricity provider MCE began requiring solar farms that are located on arable land that supplies power to its members and partners to be pollinator-friendly.

The practice has also attracted oil and gas giants, many of whom have sought to green their public images amid public cries for climate action.

That includes oil major BP, which last year increased its stake in the solar developer Lightsource bp to 50 percent from 43 percent. Lightsource bp, which describes itself as a strategic partnership formed between Lightsource Renewable Energy and BP in 2018, identifies sustainability as a core part of its business, and has recently attracted headlines with the construction of what the company is calling a “pollinator-friendly solar farm” in Sacramento County, California. 

The $20 million investment and 16.5 megawatt project, called Wildflower Solar, came out of a power purchase agreement with the Sacramento Municipal Utilities Division, signed in November 2018. The project will support the division’s Neighborhood SolarShares Program, contributing to its broader commitment to deliver 100 percent carbon-neutral electricity by 2030. 

“Lightsource bp has a strong commitment to implement initiatives that benefit biodiversity at solar projects throughout our portfolio,” said Alyssa Edwards, vice president of environmental affairs and government relations at Lightsource bp. Pollinator friendly solar, she said, is one way the company seeks to “implement dual land use strategies that can have meaningful environmental benefits.”

A Solar Plant That is Pollinator-Friendly

Edwards said that “the entire solar facility is pollinator friendly,” with one area available for a “pollinator garden” or concentrated pollinator habitat, with a more diverse seed mix than will cover the rest of the site.

The pollinator garden will comprise 1.25 acres—representing about 1.3 percent of the 91-acre array. According to Edwards, it will support a range of pollinators including western honey bees, native bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and flies.

Based on her understanding of Wildflower Solar, Yale’s Siegner said she would characterize it as a “solar project with a pollinator garden on the side,” rather than what she called a holistically pollinator-friendly solar project. 

That still represented an improvement over doing nothing to support pollinators, she said, but the scale of ecological benefits described by her report would not apply.

Lightsource bp said it has had a commitment to foster biodiversity and pollinator habitats at its solar projects since the inception of the company in 2010 in the United Kingdom, and Edwards said she believes Wildflower Solar, once completed, will qualify in its entirety as pollintator-friendly. Earlier this year, Lightsource produced a video feature on “How Solar Farms are Helping Bees in England” for the CNN offshoot, “Great Big Story.” A tweet from the company referenced Siegner’s study. 

Siegner said she was glad to see people reading her report and promoting pollinator-friendly solar. But she also said, without referring to Lightsource or any specific company, “There’s a danger that something that sounds that good and green could be used for greenwashing purposes.” 

Though excited by the growing buzz around the practice, pollinator-friendly proponents fear companies could take advantage of a lack of standards for pollinator-friendly solar to promote their projects without actually putting in the work to benefit the environment. Such greenwashing could erode public trust in what proponents see as a scalable solution to the climate and pollinator crises, and block a pathway for the expansion of solar. 

“There’s so much potential here—what a win-win from a climate change and wildlife point of view if this is done right,” said Scott Hoffman Black, an ecologist and executive director of the Xerces Society, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of invertebrates and their habitats. But, he added, “The proof is in the pudding—whether these companies are going to step up and actually do it right.”

A Win-Win Solution

For many companies in the solar industry, pursuing pollinator-friendly solar aligns with a mission to move to a fossil fuel-free energy system. It’s also a somewhat intuitive way to optimize land use, especially as solar infrastructure expands to meet growing demand. The renewable technology is already experiencing an average annual growth rate of 49 percent over the last decade, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Elysa Hammond, senior vice president of environmental stewardship at Clif Bar & Company, an organic foods and drinks producer, said the idea of pollinator-friendly solar was “a natural fit given our holistic or ecosystems approach to sustainability.” 

Just over a year ago, the company unveiled a two-megawatt, five-acre solar farm with pollinator-friendly habitat at its bakery in Twin Falls, Idaho, after previously having helped develop one of the first pollinator-friendly solar farms in the region, located in Forest City, Iowa.

“It’s not easy to get started,” said Hammond, adding, “There may be an added cost up front to understand how to do this and bring in native plants, as opposed to conventional land use.”

But for Hammond, the environmental and social benefits pollinator-friendly solar offers make the upfront cost well worthwhile. She called it “the win-win-win-win land use” solution, one that could benefit the planet, pollinators, solar developers and even local farmers. 

“Adoption of pollinator-friendly solar standards is one of the fastest growing best practices in [photovoltaic]—particularly for states with abundant prime and arable farmland,” said Rob Davis, director of the Center for Pollinators in Energy at Fresh Energy, an independent nonprofit organization working to speed the transition to a clean energy economy. He said he saw the practice as a way to “bring people together” around a swift clean energy transition.

Economic benefits have also made pollinator-friendly solar attractive for developers.

Eric Luesebrink, senior vice president of development at ENGIE Distributed Renewables, said he believed the company’s pollinator-friendly solar would have lower long-term operational and maintenance costs, while helping ENGIE be a “good neighbor” to local landowners and “give back” to the environment. “I think it’s not a bad trade-off for us,” he said, noting the upfront cost.

Forging Ahead

Even as pollinator-friendly solar is becoming more popular, however, the standards for what it should look like remain few and far between. According to Fresh Energy, pollinator-friendly scorecards, which lay out a set of entomologist-approved criteria for what constitutes “beneficial to pollinators” within the managed landscape of a PV solar facility, have currently been published for a total of 12 states, but their use is only required by law in eight of them. 

Davis said using scorecards, which he called “a fair and flexible tool for improving vegetation on solar farms,” is important for building trust between communities and developers. 

Where state-specific scorecards don’t exist, such as in California, there’s more ambiguity about what pollinator-friendly means—potentially leaving room for developers to misappropriate the label, proponents of pollinator-friendly solar say.

To ensure the integrity of projects moving forward, Hammond of Clif Bar said she hopes to see equally as robust and clear standards from reputable third parties emerge for pollinator-friendly solar development as currently exist for green infrastructure, citing the LEED standards devised by the U.S. Green Building Council as a model. 

“We can’t allow them to be short-changed by people trying to get credit for something they don’t deserve credit for,” said Hammond of pollinator-friendly projects, adding “When you have a corporation going for a single bottom line, they always look for ways to shortcut.”

Black, of the Xerces Society, similarly suggested creating a third party certification process for pollinator-friendly solar. 

Along with using a pollinator-friendly scorecard to ensure best practices, Siegner encouraged companies to make information about the nature of their pollinator-friendly habitat transparent. 

“They should make it really easy for people like you and me to audit their claims,” she said. 

As for Lightsource bp, Edwards said the pollinator garden at Wildflower will be built following the site’s construction, probably in the first quarter of 2021. She also said the company plans to continue implementing pollinator-friendly habitats throughout its portfolio. 

“This is not a one-and-done thing with Wildflower,” she said. “It’s a company commitment.”

This article has been updated to clarify that Lightsource bp says the company has been committed to fostering biodiversity and pollinator habitats since the company’s founding in 2010.