Can ground mounted solar farms be wildlife havens?

Whilst much focus lies on renewable energies, the long-term environmental impact of solar farms is still in relative infancy compared to wind turbines and hydropower. But with an appropriate land management plan, solar farms have incredible potential to support wildlife whilst contributing to national biodiversity targets – becoming undisturbed havens for wildlife across the UK.

There are many advantages to encouraging biodiversity enhancement in line with solar installation. However, high-intensity habitat management is still typically seen across solar farms n attempt to protect the panels from overgrowth, involving frequent cutting and the use of herbicides, leading to soil erosion and water run-off. Many developers are still motivated by purely economic gain and fail to engage in discussions surrounding local environmental enhancement. This can lead to potentially devastating impacts on the entire biodiversity of an area, more so than the often preceding agricultural management that most sites stem from.

Research suggests that the negative impacts of solar installation and operation relative to traditional power generation are extremely low. In fact, over 80% of the impacts were found to be positive or neutral. Yet, it is clear that if it involves the removal of woodland to make space for solar power this can cause a significant contribution to CO2 emissions, but still far lower than coal-based electricity. Once construction is complete, there is a clear advantage to having a secure site with little disturbance from humans and machinery, proving great for flora, reptiles and ground-nesting birds, for example.

In 2014, the Building Research Establishment (BRE) highlighted the opportunity solar farms present for biodiversity through minimal disturbance of less than 5% of the ground and typically only 25-40% of the surface over-sailed by panels. The micro-habitats that this then creates, combined with the water run-off from the panels, are ideal for encouraging a great diversity of flora and fauna.

With Britain hitting record levels of power generated during the sunny weather toward the end of May, this meant about 60% of the UK’s power was low-carbon. If we conservationists can jump on the back of a great success story by putting increasing pressure on solar farms to be more even more eco-friendly it could pave the way for a new form of nature reserve.

Research published in 2015 by Clarkson & Woods found that overall, “solar farms had greater botanical diversity when compared with control plots of agricultural land which represent the solar farm prior to development”.

Their finding saw a greater invertebrate abundance, however, the diversity did not differ significantly, only on those sites where they were specifically managed with a focus on wildlife. To the opposite, the diversity of birds was greater on solar farms, but abundance less so and therefore could be of particular benefit for birds of conservation concern. Overgrown grasses can be controlled by utilising a local wildflower seed mix that controls grass growth, minimising management costs and therefore saving money and increasing profits. Another option is to graze the sites with sheep, which is already being trialled on many sites with sound success.

Beyond securing the country’s energy, cutting carbon and producing electricity safely, SolarCentury is working with HabitatAid in an attempt to create biodiversity-rich solar sites across the country. They enhanced Saxley back in 2014 and the site has now been left alone with minimal human interference and will be for the next 25 years. In just a short time, it is already proving to be a haven for wildlife and invertebrates that are thriving at the site.

Other opportunities for wildlife enhancements include the provision of foraging and nesting with nectar and pollen-rich grassland creation, planting hedgerow boundaries, sewing of wild bird seed mixtures, pond digging and placement of bat and bird boxes. Collaboration with local wildlife charities such as The Wildlife Trusts and RSPB will also all for effective and long-term monitoring to be undertaken on the sites to learn more about the long-term implications of solar farms.

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