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Solar’s synergies with nature

To avoid the worst of climate change there must be a rapid shift to clean energy. In tandem with efforts to reduce emissions from highly polluting coal and gas power stations, the UK is also tasked with restoring and supporting healthy ecosystems across the country to tackle a growing biodiversity crisis.

Large-scale PV technology can play an instrumental role in tackling both of these challenges, driving the UK’s shift to a zero-carbon economy while simultaneously enhancing natural capital.

Although it is challenging to measure on a global scale, in recent years many countries have reported a consistent decline in biodiversity. In 2018 the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) reported that the UK was experiencing a decline in the abundance of priority species. Covering a range of aquatic and terrestrial flora and fauna, statistics indicate that both the distribution and richness of many UK species has been in spiralling decline since 1970.[1] According to DEFRA, 40% of England’s habitats and 30% of priority species are still in decline.[2]

Britain’s solar industry is stepping up to the challenge. Experts from across industry and academia have worked together to develop tools that further enable solar projects to enhance the local environment, while continuing to generate an abundance of clean, low-cost power.

One example of this is the Solar Park Impacts on Ecosystem Services (SPIES) tool, which summarises the best available evidence of the impacts of a range of land management techniques on ecosystem services at each site. SPIES brings together evidence from over 450 academic articles, specifically tailored to UK environments, and it allows users to filter evidence by desired ecosystem service, which then generates a list of tailored environmental management opportunities. Furthermore, users of the tool can qualify and, in most cases, quantify the value of ecosystem services at current solar parks and those in the planning pipeline, ensuring each site can maximise its promotion of biodiversity. [3]

In comparison with other energy generation technologies, ground-mounted solar has a significantly lower environmental impact overall, and can be successfully coupled with agriculture, aquaculture, and the built environment. Solar parks are temporary structures with an average life span of 25-40 years. They are secure sites, requiring little human disturbance, and with an infrastructure footprint typically covering less than 5% of the total area of a site. Where sited in an agricultural setting, they also offer a valuable fallow period for land that has been intensively farmed, allowing for the restoration of healthy, fertile soils.

Solar Energy UK’s Natural Capital Value of Solar Report published in 2019, provides clear evidence that solar parks which are well designed, constructed and maintained properly can have a net positive impact on the natural capital value of the land and support a wide range of ancillary ecosystem services.

One of the unique advantages to solar parks is the very minimal disturbance from humans or machinery after installation, which maximises habitat potential for a range of wildlife.[4] This synergy between PV and the natural world can be further enhanced through the creation of a range of different habitats including hedgerows, ponds, and wildflower meadows. Each solar site differs from the next, offering unique opportunities to optimise habitat value.

Drainage and on-site water management are also key considerations when planning a solar development. On any solar site, surface water must be adequately managed by implementing open draining structures such as swales or balancing ponds instead of sub-surface drainage. Solar parks will often feature a stable water management system, providing rich wetland habitations, which are in steep decline.

While solar park developers are always required to consider the environment in planning, many now are seeking ways to maximise the biodiversity contribution their projects can make. One recent example in the UK, is Britain’s most advanced park built by Gridserve in York The park consists of 90,000 bifacial panels, meaning they are able to harvest sunlight on both sides of the panel, increasing the amount of light captured. Bifacial panels by nature are more light-permeable and promote growth of wildflower species underneath the panels. But what really makes this site particularly special is the species of pollinating plants Gridserve have chosen to use. The exact species remains a company secret, however the science behind it hints that planting this reflective variety underneath the bifacial panels could promote a “boost” in solar performance.

Another exciting prospect is the Cleve Hill Solar Park, set to be sited in North Kent. The project is set to deliver a net biodiversity benefit of 65% owing to features such as a dedicated Habitat Management Area the size of 138 football pitches which will provide a home for a range of bird species including Lapwing, Brent Goose, Golden Plover and Marsh Harrier. Less than half of the total site area will be adorned with panels, with plans for a large open meadow area, likely to be one of the largest in South East England, in addition to woodland, hedgerows and grassland, providing habitat for a variety of wildlife.

With solar sites offering some of the best opportunities to deliver a vital boost to biodiversity in Britain, project developers are taking their responsibility as stewards of the land seriously. As this progresses, solar parks will increasingly become vital wildlife havens, serving the environment in ways that most other technologies cannot.