How Solar Panels Can Help Farmers, and Save Bees

March 15, 2018

Creative siting of solar panels can create co-benefits for pollinators, native plants, as well as unique opportunities for grazing and other agriculture.

Video above cuts to chase around 11:00.


For the first time, a bee species in the continental United States has been declared endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The rusty patched bumblebee is in worrisome decline and it is a race to keep it from becoming extinct, the agency said.
“Listing the bee as endangered will help us mobilize partners and focus resources on finding ways right now to stop the decline,” Wildlife Service Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius said.
The population of the rusty patched bumblebee has shrunk by 87% since the late 1990s, the wildlife service said.
Bees help pollinate 35% of the world’s food, and bumblebees pollinate everything from tomatoes to cranberries, blueberries and melons.
There are a number of reasons for the crash of pollinator bees worldwide. Mainly, those are habitat loss (nearly 40% of all land is used for agriculture, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization), climate change (the land that’s left is changing, and this is shrinking the ranges of some bees) and rampant chemical use.
“The rusty patched bumblebee is among a group of pollinators, including the monarch butterfly, experiencing serious declines across the country,” Melius said. “Why is this important? Pollinators are small but mighty parts of the natural mechanism that sustains us and our world. Without them … our crops require laborious, costly pollination by hand.”
The species joins seven species of yellow-faced bees found in Hawaii on the endangered list. It is one of 47 bumblebee species in North America.

Last year, when Minnesota passed a groundbreaking law on best practices for providing pollinator habitat at solar power sites, they also (unexpectedly) helped launch something called Solar Honey, in which solar companies and commercial beekeepers work together in a mutually beneficial arrangement

On May 31, 2016, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed the Pollinator Friendly Solar Act into law, a first of its kind legislation that lays out voluntary standards for managing native habitat—think prairie grass and wild flowers—for pollinators, songbirds, and other beneficial critters. Solar developers and local governments can use these guidelines, which give recommendations on things like what seed mixes to use, the best options for laying out the plants, and how to maintain the site, in order to help provide these beneficial creatures with the a comfortable home. In return, they get bragging rights, so long as they can prove they’re following state regulations. They also have to make their site’s vegetation plan available to the public, among other requirements. The idea is catching fire among solar providers through Minnesota.

Pollinators, as we’ve reported, are facing habitat loss at an alarming rate, due to things like development, logging and mono-cropping. Between 2015 and 2016 alone, the USDA reported a 44 percent decline in U.S. honey bee colonies. Bees play in outsized role in food production, too, pollinating approximately 75 percent of fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown in the U.S.

Connexus Energy, the largest customer-owned power company in Minnesota—they serve about 130,000 customers in the eastern part of the state who buy shares so they don’t have to install and maintain solar panels at their homes—initially incorporated pollinator habitat at its 1.2 acre solar array site, called SolarWise garden, in Ramsey, Minn., soon after the law’s passage. This past April, they took it a step further and installed bee hives.

The company partnered with local beekeepers Bolton Bees on the project, which is the first U.S. solar facility to host a commercial bee operation. Since then, two more, much larger (about 40 acres each), solar array sites from different companies have brought in apiaries, according to Rob Davis from Fresh Energy, an environmental consultancy in St. Paul.  “Altogether the three sites provide pollinator habitat equivalent to more than 40,000 homes each having a 6 by 12 pollinator garden,” he tells Modern Farmer in an email.

Travis and Chiara Bolton, the owners of Bolton Bees in St. Paul, have recently begun their first honey harvest from the three sites and have already extracted 3,600 pounds of what they call “Solar Honey”—honey that’s produced on or around solar array sites—and will be extracting the final 20 frames in October at a special event at the SolarWise garden. Most of the honey will be sold at grocery stores, but a portion will be given to solar garden subscribers or donated to local community fundraising events.


Solar Power World:

Commercial solar installer SoCore Energy planted native pollinator plants at about a dozen of its solar sites in Western Wisconsin in the past year. They haven’t begun blooming yet.

“The alternative option that we would plant would be turf grass, and turf grass requires a lot of operations and maintenance,” said Laura Caspari, director of development.

Choosing pollinator plants for solar arrays requires more maintenance in the first three years, but much less after that point. The alternative, turf grass, requires endless mowing. Caspari anticipates pollinator plants will save SoCore O&M money in the long-term, which was motivation enough to pursue this unusual option.

“We were quite impressed when we saw the maintenance cost reduction after the establishment period, so I definitely would encourage people to look at that aspect of it,” Caspari said.

During the first three years, the biggest maintenance concern will be eradicating fast-growing invasive plants. They’ll need to be killed by mowing, herbicide or manual extraction. Once the native plants are established and their roots have grown to the average 10 to 15 ft, they’ll do a good job of crowding out any weeds or invasive plants themselves, with the occasional need for human intervention. Caspari said SoCore carefully selected low-growth plants appropriate for a solar farm, but if anything grew too high they would require trimming.

While the upfront cost of native, pollinator-friendly seeds will be higher than turf grass seeds, the cost of ongoing maintenance will be much lower. Management and maintenance costs of a low-growing native meadow habitat are roughly half that of turf grass mowing and maintenance.

Another benefit of native grasses for contractors is within the permitting process. Installers must obtain permits for storm water runoff that vary state by state. When contractors use turf grass under arrays, the storm water runoff is greater due to the small grass’s small roots not soaking it up. When contractors use native plants instead, less runoff is produced since the root systems are much deeper and better at soaking up the rainwater.


7 Responses to “How Solar Panels Can Help Farmers, and Save Bees”

  1. andrewfez Says:

    50% of power generating sources retiring by 2030. RMI says it’s looking more like renewables will fill this large gap.

    Renewables crash the price of electricity; this is a problem incentivizing new solar to come online; demand shifting increases the price enough to solve this.

    Demand shifting and storage also minimize need for gas turbines.

    (That’s as far as I’ve gotten watching the video)

  2. Sir Charles Says:

    At these sites there is no reason to spray pollinator killing neonicotinoids. That’s what could probably save some bees.

  3. Gingerbaker Says:

    “Renewables crash the price of electricity; this is a problem incentivizing new solar to come online; demand shifting increases the price enough to solve this.”

    Electricity is a basic commodity which should be as low cost as possible.

    Your example here is antithetical to that basic proposition, and a perfect example of why our energy future should be publicly-owned infrastructure, where low prices are not a problem but a feature.

  4. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    One issue with keeping solar panels clean:

    • redskylite Says:

      Desert sand and winds also makes the panels produce below par – thank god for man’s ingenuity .

      The 100-megawatt Shams 1 concentrating solar plant in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, has a lot of mirrors (258,048!) and a lot of dust. Watch the dust problem get solved.

    • redskylite Says:

      Equally clever solutions for cleaning those turbine blades. . . . .

      Hundreds of feet above a snow-covered field, a boxy black device covered in propellers hovers next to the enormous outstretched blade of a wind turbine. From a corner of the machine, a nozzle sprays a liquid across the surface of the blade in a rapid smooth zigzag motion like a rogue car wash in the sky.

  5. dumboldguy Says:

    Uh, can we get back to the bees? These little patches of native habitat are a great idea, but since bees don’t travel more than a couple of miles from the hive, there are going to have to be a lot of these “oases”. Even if these “oases” become common, the bees traveling into surrounding pesticide poisoned fields is going to have a negative impact on their numbers. We need to ban neonics.

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