Solar PV farms can provide a vital home for native insects

Solar farms can provide key habitats for insects and other pollinators to rehabilitate the local environment, according to new research.

US researchers have found that when fields housing solar photovoltaics (PVs) are planted with native plants, they can attract large numbers of insects which improve the biodiversity of the area.

The study is published in Environmental Research.

Researchers from the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and National Renewable Energy Laboratory, planted native grasses and flowering plants at 2 PV sites in Minnesota.

Solar panels with grasses and flowers
A solar-pollinator habitat, dominated by purple prairie clover and black-eyed susan flowering plants. Credit: Image by Argonne National Laboratory/Lee Walston.

Both sites were former agricultural fields, and both were surrounded by agricultural land that was still in use.

Over 4 years, from 2018 to 2022, the researchers ran 358 surveys checking in on the species present at both areas.

“Over time we saw the numbers and types of flowering plants increase as the habitat matured. Measuring the corresponding positive impact for pollinators was very gratifying,” says co-author Heidi Hartmann, manager of the Land Resources and Energy Policy Program in Argonne’s Environmental Sciences division.

Person in high vis and hard hat carrying clipboard looking at flowers
An Argonne scientist surveys for pollinators at a utility-scale solar facility. Credit: Image by Argonne National Laboratory/Lee Walston.

Every metric the researchers used to assess environmental health improved over the period – including species richness, insect diversity, and insect abundance. Insect abundance tripled over time, while native bee abundance saw a 20-fold increase.

They also found pollinators at the solar farms visited soy bean crops next door.

“This research highlights the relatively rapid insect community responses to habitat restoration at solar energy sites,” says Lee Walston, landscape ecologist and environmental scientist at Argonne.

“It demonstrates that, if properly sited, habitat-friendly solar energy can be a feasible way to safeguard insect populations and can improve the pollination services in adjacent agricultural fields.”

The group points out more research is needed to see how this works in other regions and to see if it can achieve other outcomes like helping endangered species.

Nevertheless, they describe their work as a “low impact approach to improve the ecological compatibility of utility-scale solar energy” in their paper.

They say that disturbed sites, like former agricultural, industrial, or mining land could be good locations for solar-pollinator habitats.

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