Ground-mounted solar systems require ongoing maintenance and not just to the panels, racks and inverters. You also need to consider how the land around and under the arrays will be maintained. This is important for aesthetic, cost and ultimately the performance of the solar system itself.
One of the hottest trends in commercial solar I’m seeing right now is planting pollinator habitats as part of the total solar solution. Pollinator habitats are areas planted with specific native flowers that attract honeybees, butterflies, moths, and other insects that essential for the pollination of flowers, fruits and vegetables. The work of these busy bees supports about $20 billion worth of crop production in the U.S. annually.
Lest you think pollinator habitats are just “feel good” plots, here are five reasons to go this route as part of the ongoing maintenance of ground-mounted solar solution.
Reason One: Cost
Did you know that maintaining the ground under and around ground-mounted solar systems is the largest annual cost, more than equipment maintenance? It’s true. Grass must be cut on a continuous basis during growing season to ensure grass and weeds don’t grow to a height that interferes with the panels’ solar collection or with the racking, inverters and general access to the system.
It’s not as easy as running a lawn mower or tractor through either. The space between arrays varies and while much of the vegetation can be cut with a mower, a weed eating is a must when getting around the rack supports and cables. This makes for a time-consuming, costly and never-ending project. Maintaining manicured grass on a four-acre solar site can easily cost $15,000 annually. Annual cost of maintenance for the same size site is about $5,000.
Reason Two: Ease of Maintenance
Pollinator habitats are designed to be low maintenance. Here’s what I mean by that. In addition to selecting location-appropriate flowers, the height of the mature plants is also taken into consideration. At mature height, the varieties selected will stay at or below three feet tall so as not to interfere with the solar panels. Throughout the growing season, the plants don’t have to be cut on a continuous basis, although I would suggest looking for that one rogue flower that wants to outgrow the others. Keep those bad boys trimmed.
Pollinator habitat should not be cut in the fall as the dead foliage continues to provide protection and cover for a wide range of insects and small animals like rabbits and even reptiles over the winter. The foliage should be cut, cleared and replanted in early spring to ensure lush coverage and vibrant growth across the solar system acreage. That’s about it for maintenance!
Reason Three: Regionally Appropriate Plants
With the commercialization of large swathes of land, native plants are at risk of disappearing. While we can always purchase flowering plants from nurseries, it’s far more advantageous to plant native plants that evolved to fit the local climate, soil and sunshine.
Here’s what’s interesting: there are nurseries that specialize in creating native seed mixes for the Midwest, Southeast, Far West and even specific states. For example, Cardno Native Plant Nursery in Southern Indiana provides top quality native seed mixes and plant material to ensure the pollinator habitat is attractive to bees, butterflies, moths, and other insects as well as environmentally sound aesthetically pleasing. Their seed mixes include both flowering plants and native grasses that also stabilize the soil and protect against erosion. These specialized nurseries also take into account that pollinators need more than nectar and pollen, they also need nesting sites. Engaging expert nurseries on the front end ensures a healthy habitat.
Reason Four: Community Engagement
Solar energy has tremendous community appeal because of being a green source of energy and healthier for the environment. There are times; however, when “NIMBY” comes into play. The “not in my backyard” sometimes comes into play with large solar sites with acres of arrays. Adding a pollinator habitat goes a long way toward winning community support. It’s hard to argue with a field of flowers and even harder to argue with the benefits delivered to essential pollinators that will make their home among the solar arrays.
Solential encourages customers to engage with your community about your solar system and the role played by the pollinator habitat. You might be surprised how excited people get, young and old, when they learn what plants are used, what types of insects and birds are attracted, and how the habitat impacts gardens, crops and orchards in the area. Don’t be surprised if schools and senior centers want to tour your habitat! That would never happen if you covered the earth under your solar array with gravel or carefully manicured grass!
Reason Five: Environmental Impact
As a renewable energy source, your solar system will make a huge impact on the environment by reducing carbon emissions. Way to go! Adding a pollinator habitat makes your solar solution that much better. Honey bees have been in decline for more than a 15 years. According to National Geographic, bee colonies have been disappearing in what is known as the colony collapse disorder. Some regions of the United States have experienced losses of up to 90 percent of their honeybee population.
Scientists are studying the potential consequences of the rapid decline of the honey bee population and how to mitigate its effects before it causes dire problems for crop management and production. By establishing a thoughtfully created and maintained pollinator habitat, you help reverse the decline of bees and other insects important to the agriculture industry, which is responsible for feeding the world.
Solential has installed pollinator habitats with the help of our expert nursery partners at a variety of solar installations across this Midwest. This includes at wastewater treatment facilities, community solar projects and farms. We’ve heard nothing but positive feedback from our customers. If you would like to discuss your commercial solar project and how you can integrate a pollinator habitat in your solar solution, I’d love to talk with you. Reach me at email@example.com or call/text me at 317-627-4530.