Ground-mounted solar arrays take up a lot of space, and the ground around them is often wasted. An initiative in Vermont seeks to change that and use the land to help the ecosystem.
A Weybridge, Vermont company is expanding an idea that started in Minnesota. Pollinator species like bees and butterflies are challenged by habitat loss and the increased use of pesticides. Bee the Change owner Mike Kiernan is working with Vermont solar companies to plant vegetation to attract and create habitat for pollinator species on the unused ground below and between solar panels. "Renewable energy and the solar particularly is growing and the technology is getting less and less expensive and they’re building a lot of it. And that is right alongside that awareness that there’s a problem with our pollinators. And I think particularly there’s a rising awareness of the problem with honeybees. And our effort is actually more broad than supporting honeybees. We have 275 native bee species in this region. And an almost equal number of butterflies and many more moths and beetles and flies that are important pollinators that we’re working to support by building a diverse habitat underneath solar."
Renewable Energy Vermont’s primary mission is to increase the growth of renewables in the state. It has launched a Pollinator Pledge program to encourage solar producers to plant pollinator habitat at solar farms. Spokesman Austin Davis says there are practical reasons for solar developers to join the program. "There is a lot of great benefits to this. And one of them is the aesthetic appeal of including wildflowers with a solar array. It’s certainly there in the foreground. We also had members who are early adopters who are saying that they think this will save them on operation and maintenance costs over the coming years where they won’t necessarily have to say mow the lawn as much or have to worry so much about storm water mitigation and things like that. So there is a potential long term payoff."
Kiernan says solar developers understand and embrace the sustainability issues represented in the Pollinator Pledge. "I think we should be looking everywhere where we see turf grass, our municipal buildings, our school yards, our back yards. Everywhere that it is is an opportunity. In a solar field they have to put something underneath there and they usually put turf grass down because it’s easy to manage. You mow it twice a year. And we’re beginning in solar fields because you have to pay somebody to put down turf grass and mow it. And that creates a business model that allows us to try for the same amount of money, or perhaps a little bit less over time, to create habitat for pollinators."