Utility-scale solar farms are cropping up across the world. But what does this growth mean for land-use in the countryside? New research, backed by leading UK conservation charities, suggests that far from being a threat to the countryside, solar farms may actually offer opportunities for supporting biodiversity while still obtaining an economic yield. Authored by independent ecologist Dr Guy Parker in partnership with leading UK conservation groups like the Grassland Trust and the Royal Society for Protection of Birds, as well as the Solar Trade Association (STA), the publication also includes guidance for solar farm operators to maximize their potential conservation benefits.
Here's how Solarcentury reported on the research:
...biodiversity can be greatly enhanced on solar farms compared to arable farm land, encouraging bumblebees and butterflies in particular to thrive. Solar farms typically take up less than 5% of the land they are on so there is a huge opportunity to develop protected habitats to support local wildlife and plant life.
Dr Parker said, “As an ecologist I’ve become very interested in the potential to use solar farms to boost biodiversity. I conducted some preliminary research on four sites which demonstrated a significant increase in the monitored species as compared to surrounding farmland.”
Interestingly, in addition to creating niches for more biodiversity above ground, the new guidelines also suggest that solar farms may also provide an incentive to promote more soil-based carbon sequestration too:
Siting solar parks on meadows can be a plus for the environment according to research carried out by Miles King Director of Conservation for the Grassland Trust. He found that meadows (unimproved grasslands) are very efficient at absorbing and storing carbon – grasslands lock up a fifth of all soil carbon in the UK. So each hectare of solar farm saves about 25 tonnes of carbon each year. In addition, meadows save a further three tonnes of carbon as it is captured and stored by grassland – this would not happen if the land was being intensively farmed or even if the grass being replaced is ‘improved’.
Now that really is a win-win situation. Sadly, the UK's Conservative-lead government appears to be once again moving the goal posts for utility-scale solar providers. This move is spurred in part by concerns about solar farms destroying the countryside. Strangely, these concerns have yet to dampen their enthusiasm for fracking, however.