HomeNewsKeeping the buzz alive: ETL receives $50,000 gift for research on pollinator-friendly solar

Keeping the buzz alive: ETL receives $50,000 gift for research on pollinator-friendly solar

Could we do right by pollinators while harvesting an irreplaceable renewable resource?

The Energy Transition Lab (ETL), housed within the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, has received a $50,000 gift from Connexus Energy to fund research related to siting solar energy projects in Minnesota that have been seeded and managed to significantly benefit pollinators, such as native bees and butterflies.  ETL will collaborate with the Institute on the Environment’s Natural Capital Project and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory on this work, which aims to identify the net impacts of co-locating pollinator-friendly habitats and large scale solar farms.

A recent peer-reviewed study published in Environmental Science and Technology identified thousands of acres of pollinator-dependent crops located close to the 489 MW of solar arrays developed throughout Minnesota as of December 2017.

A pollinator test plot underneath the PV array at the Chisago Solar Site, part of the Aurora Solar Project in Minnesota. NREL scientist Jordan Macknick is researching the economical and ecological affect of pollinator plants planted underneath the PV array. (Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL)

“These acres of flowering landscapes of deep-rooted plants under and around ground-mounted solar arrays provide an opportunity for significant agricultural, ecological, and economic benefits,” said Ellen Anderson, director of the Energy Transition Lab.

Pollinator-dependent crops surrounding solar arrays lead to a natural increase in pollinators, which the Minnesota Department of Agriculture describes as “an irreplaceable public resource” integral to 35% of the world’s crop production. ETL research will examine several valuable benefits to providing greater pollinator-friendly ground cover at solar facilities. Besides solar electricity revenue, benefits may include increased biodiversity, improved soil quality, reduced water run-off, and additional opportunities, such as beekeeping.

A monarch butterfly feeds on flowers being grown for seed at Minnesota Native Landscapes in Foley, Minnesota. Minnesota Native Landscapes grows native, pollinator friendly seed used to restore natural prairie and under PV arrays to support pollinator species in Minnesota. (Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL)

“We will leverage this donor’s generosity to answer key questions quantifying the benefits that these landscapes can provide to soil, water and wildlife, as well as agricultural production and income streams,” said Anderson.

The Energy Transition Lab is conducting research now and will begin field studies on pollinator-friendly solar energy farms in the spring of 2019.

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