There’s a new “buzz” in the solar energy industry and it has nothing to do with declining solar energy prices, the efficiency of solar panels, or tax credits. The “buzz” is about bees and other pollinators. A report from Argonne National Laboratory released earlier this year highlighted the potentially beneficial relationship between utility-scale solar energy (USSE) facilities and pollinator habitat. From the pollinators’ perspective, the development of pollinator-friendly habitat surrounding USSE facilities can help mitigate lost habitat resulting from land development, help address health threats such as Colony Collapse Disorder which hit the honey bee population particularly hard in the early 2000s and can help promote overall bee population health. From the perspective of the solar energy industry, pollinator-friendly habitat can be installed in place of the gravel and turf that typically surrounds USSE facilities thereby minimizing the environmental impacts of such facilities through improved water quality and decreased stormwater run-off, reducing weed control costs, and possibly helping to cool the surrounding area and slow solar panel degradation.
Recognizing these symbiotic benefits, Xcel Energy announced on October 12, 2018, that it will begin considering Minnesota’s Pollinator Friendly Solar Scorecard in its future requests for proposals for solar power as part of its ongoing Pollinator Initiative. Xcel’s announcement is consistent with Minnesota’s Solar Site Management legislation (Minn. Stat. § 216B.1642) which effectively encourages solar site owners to provide native perennial vegetation and foraging habitat and authorizes such owners to claim that the site provides benefits to pollinators and to other fauna. Illinois, Maryland, New York, South Carolina and Vermont have all enacted similar legislation.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, as of the third quarter of 2018, there is more than 29 GW of installed large-scale solar generation in the United States. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, forecasts for USSE over the next five years range from 7 to 8 GW of new capacity installed annually. Given that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that photovoltaic solar power projects of 20 MW or greater require approximately 8 acres per MWac, installed and forecasted USSE facilities will require hundreds of thousands of acres of land. Much of this land may be located in rural areas where pollinator-friendly USSE facilities can provide benefits to surrounding agricultural land uses.
As electric utilities add increasing amounts of solar energy to their generation portfolios to take advantage of record low prices, land use costs and the environmental impacts of USSE facilities will become even greater considerations. Incorporating pollinator-friendly habitat and deploying other measures that combine energy and agricultural production may prove to be a win-win for electric utilities, power producers, USSE host communities, retail customers . . . and for the bees.