Bees Knees: In Spain, Solar Makes for Happy Bees, More Honey

June 16, 2022


Interesting Engineering:

A place where bees, crops, animals, and photovoltaic panels coexist and thrive may very well be feasible.

In fact, modern solar technology combined with traditional techniques has improved the bee population and honey production in the Spanish town of Carmona, according to an initial report by Endesa.

In the town, roughly two and a half million bees coexist with sheep and aromatic plants in the middle of a solar facility. Run by the Endesa energy company, the project is called Solar Apiary and is a brilliant example of agrivoltaics, the simultaneous utilization of land for both solar power and agriculture.

The solar plant project, which started operating at the end of 2020, has a total of 250,000 solar modules that produce an overall peak capacity of 100 MW, which is enough to power 30 thousand homes and prevent millions of tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere each year.

In this photovoltaic installation, the solar plant project — 100 MW and 200 hectares — combines agricultural usage  — 3 hectares of aromatic plants: sage, rosemary, oregano, and coriander — and beekeeping with 50 or 60 hives.

With a futuristic bee farm featuring innovative technologies and intelligent beehives within the photovoltaic park, beekeeping increases crop output by increasing the degree of pollination. In a prime example, bees are thriving in this corner of southern Spain, as reported by Juan Ignacio Lopez and his family, who have been keeping bees and producing honey in Carmona, in a CGTN article

“The apiary, otherwise known as a collection of beehives, sits in a vast expanse of wildflowers and plants which have been planted between the solar panels and allowed to grow naturally,” Lopez explained. “And that means no herbicides, no agricultural chemicals, which makes it a perfect habitat for bees and other pollinating insects.”

The hives, which are monitored from a special control center, are equipped with a wide range of special sensors to measure temperature and humidity and ensure bees stay healthy. The entrances to the hives are opened and closed at certain times to regulate internal air circulation. Moreover, the beekeepers can check on honey production remotely and even prevent theft thanks to GPS trackers. All of this allows for the production of “solar” honey.

And honey is not where solar energy’s adventure ends. In a bid to combine the sustainable use of the land and the protection of biodiversity on the sites of solar power plants, there are many other activities that the company is trailing. For example, some farms in New South Wales, Australia, have found that sheep grazing under the solar panels have produced better wool and more of it, while studies suggest transparent solar panels on greenhouses can help farmers reduce their carbon footprint.

All this could promote a diversified use of the land and improve ecosystem services, ensuring land-intensive renewables such as solar power are not taking valuable land away from local agriculture at a time of fierce competition for land that is also needed for food production and biodiversity conservation.

Assessment – it’s early days for Agro-voltaics, and important not to assume that every solar farm is going to be some kind of sophisticated hybrid ag facility. Early data is very promising, but in some areas, overly enthusiastic Greens are insisting on pollinator requirements for solar farms that are so unrealistically high it’s killed projects.
Takeaway from this one is that if the bees are happy, it means that the Facebook memes about mysterious “invisible rays” or toxicity from solar farms are wrong (we knew that), and big potential for the future.
For now, one of the leading developers that I know has a very good program of native grass plantings around their solar facilities, and use of pesticides restricted to keeping access roads clear. Plenty of habitat for wild pollinators and small critters, and moving the critical, critical, critical energy transition forward – by far the most important mission on behalf of all living things, whether flying, crawling, buzzing, swimming, walking or climbing.

American Clean Power Association has a one-pager on Maintenance of Vegetation at Solar sites that is reasonable for where we are now.


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