met with scepticism in communities where the natural landscape is considered a key part to the region’s cultural heritage or a source of income through tourism and other recreational industries that rely on a pristine environment where evidence of human intervention have been kept at a minimum.
In such cases, the changes brought about by the installation of wind turbines and solar panels are considered more damaging compared to the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Traditional uses of the land, primarily agriculture, are seen as taking precedence over the need to allocate land for the operation of renewables. However, recent research might help balance the scales on this issue as evidence would suggest that solar farms can significantly improve local biodiversity, with benefits to wildlife and potentially surrounding crops.
It has been long suggested that solar parks, otherwise known as solar farms, can help local biodiversity: a large area of the land is not occupied by solar panels or other equipment which helps create habitats and increase species populations; what is more, after the initial construction of the solar farm, the grounds are mostly undisturbed.
These claims and anecdotal evidence are now being backed up by what is one of the most comprehensive studies on solar farms and their impact on biodiversity¹. The study was conducted in the UK by ecological consultants on behalf of the UK’s Solar Trade Association and it examined 11 solar farms in England and Wales alongside neighbouring control plots. The results of this study clearly demonstrate that solar farms have a positive impact on biodiversity for a range of plant and animal species when combined with an appropriate land management plan. The level of benefit to biodiversity was, perhaps unsurprisingly, dependent on the management: the stronger the focus on wildlife management, the better the solar farm performed on biodiversity metrics. The solar farms that performed best were the ones that were seeded with a diverse seed mix once the solar farm had been constructed, that used herbicides in a very limited way, that provided good marginal habitat for wildlife and employed a conservation grazing or mowing regime.
The report further contends that findings also show that not only is there a net benefit for the environment from solar farms even before considering the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that would result once renewable energy is generated, but that the benefits for wildlife in solar farms extend to the surrounding areas. By helping strengthen local biodiversity, solar farms support the ecosystem services that are so important for people and agriculture. For example, by becoming a net producer of pollinating insects, which are in decline, solar farms are promoting the health of surrounding crops such as cereals, vegetables, soft fruits and orchard fruits. This is a win-win situation for both the environment and the rural economy.
The precise reason that solar farms benefit biodiversity is attributed to a combination of factors such as the conversion of land from monoculture agriculture to more diverse planting approaches, the more limited use of pesticides as well as shaded areas and structures for perching and nesting which are particularly important for birds. The management of solar farms also requires for less frequent grazing which helps encourage the growth of a wider variety of species and consequently also of the species that rely on them.
In assessing the importance of those findings, it is interesting to note that the impact of solar farms on biodiversity was determined by comparing the solar farms to “control” plots nearby. These plots were outside the solar panel array but within the same farm. What the researchers then did was continue managing the “control” plots in the same way that the land where the solar farm had been constructed was previously managed. This meant that a comparison provided a clear view of the benefits of solar farms when correctly managed versus what was happening prior to their construction. To provide a sense of scale, in other word to quantify how much better well managed solar farms do when compared to other land uses, it would have been good to seek comparisons with biodiversity in reserves, where biodiversity enhancement is a key focus, and more importantly with sustainably managed agricultural land. Such a comparison would not in any way minimise the significance of the study results. It would however serve to highlight the relative advantages of solar farms in terms of biodiversity.
Overall, the initiative of the UK’s Solar Trade Association is a step in the right direction for providing a more accurate overview of how different land uses can impact our environment and society. Promulgating best practices such as those applied in the 11 sites reviewed in the study is key to minimising negative impacts and identifying potential positive externalities. In this respect, the benefits of solar farms for biodiversity and wildlife could be useful to farmers who are seeking to generate their income through land as it highlights the possibility of converting plots into solar farms and in so doing benefiting neighbouring land which will continue to be cultivated for agriculture.