Research from Lancaster University published last week by trade association Solar Energy UK, offers evidence that solar farms can enhance biodiversity.
Solar farms surveyed by ecologists showed an increase in the abundance of wildlife, especially pollinators like bees and butterflies that maintain biodiversity and ecosystem stability.
Pollinator habitats, such as wildflower meadows, can be established within solar farms and could increase the abundance of bumblebees by up to four times.
Conservative estimates suggest we have over 1500 pollinating insect species in Britain, but key pollinator groups have declined in recent years due to the loss of suitable habitat compounded by an increased use of pesticides. According to Friends of the Earth, the UK has already lost around 13 species and another 35 are currently at risk.
Insects increase food security through the pollination of 84% of crop species in Europe, and the UK including oilseed, strawberries, apples, beans, and tomatoes. The benefit of insect pollination varies between crop types but can increase fruit and seed production, improve quality, and taste, and speed up ripening.
Pollination shortfalls could cause certain fruit and vegetables to become rarer and more expensive, even causing nutritional deficits in diets.
The majority of solar farms are built on “moderate quality agricultural land” grade 3b land, which is less productive for farmers but flat enough for solar panel installations and perfectly positioned for insects to pollinate nearby crops.
Research suggests that establishing honeybee hives on every solar farm in England could have resulted in benefits worth £5.9 million in 2017. If pollinator-dependent crops were located closer to solar farms, values could theoretically have reached £80 million.
The impact of managing solar farms for wild pollinators is yet to be researched, but given that wild pollinators are more important for crop than domestic honeybees, the benefits could be even greater.
Since the government ruled out planning protections for grade ‘3b’ farmland in December, enquiries to solar companies from farmers have quadrupled.
Neil Cockerill, founder of solar energy company Rainbow Energy says “Since the lifting of the proposed ban, we have had more than four times the number of enquiries for solar from farmers. The benefits are numerous for farms. Solar panels save agricultural businesses from paying sky-high energy prices, promote food security by keeping farms in business and encouraging biodiversity, cutting carbon on the way.”