UP: PV and biodiversity


There has been a curious outcome of the armistice that created the demilitarized zone (DMZ) on the Korean peninsula. This stretch of land, spanning 250 km by 4 km, has a significant military presence and strict neutral-zone enforcement. The resulting isolation has been advantageous for flora and fauna. South Korea’s National Institute of Ecology published a report noting 6,168 wildlife species in eight areas and, of the nation’s 267 endangered species, 102 live in the DMZ.

The analogy with solar requires a dash of imagination but the facts are there. Utility-scale solar installations have their own strictly cordoned-off zones of isolation and see limited human activity. The very nature of boundaries can provide nature protection and even boost ecosystems. While trees and their shade are out of the picture at solar sites, birds and bees can benefit from lands that are more mixed-use.

The Nature Conservancy has published six guiding principles for wildlife-friendly, low impact solar siting and design.

Areas with high native biodiversity and high-quality natural communities should be avoided. Wildlife connectivity should be considered, and disturbed or degraded land should be preferred. Water quality should be preserved and erosion avoided while native vegetation and grasslands should be restored. Wildlife habitats should also be provided.

Many of these principles have been regulated into laws and solar developers and engineering, procurement, and construction services companies have carefully chosen placements for utility scale solar, working closely with national and regional governments and municipalities.

In 2023, accelerated solar deployment is key for both a response to the climate crisis and supporting energy security across the globe. The need to more rapidly mobilize the use of land without compromising local ecosystems is crucial: most solar parks require large scale fencing, often topped with barbed wire. Blocking off hectares of land within an ecosystem, and reducing areas to minimal grass, or worse, can be detrimental to wildlife.

Alongside the guiding principles outlined above, wildlife-permeable fencing is regularly being used. In North Carolina, a 2.32 MW project by Pine Gate Renewables installed a wildlife-permeable fence and a motion-activated camera which captured the passing movement of rabbits, foxes, mink, racoons, and a skunk. Further efforts are being made to incorporate wildlife passageways that permit larger animals such as deer and bears to pass through between ecosystems.

Money, ideas

Government involvement is now on the scene to promote harmony between solar and nature. In late 2022, the US Department of Energy (DoE) announced $14 million for a “Deploying Solar with Wildlife and Ecosystem Services Benefits” (SolWEB) program to help researchers study how solar energy infrastructure interacts with wildlife and ecosystems, and to make progress for the industry.

While late to the solar party, in terms of being the first federal government investment in understanding how solar, wildlife, and the environment can work together, the money went directly to projects across the country for region-by-region support.

“[The] DoE is committed to ensuring that renewable energy deployment protects natural environments,” said US Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “This first-ever DoE investment in tools to better understand how solar energy infrastructure interacts with native wildlife and the environment will help increase adoption of ecosystem-friendly clean energy deployment.”

The nine SolWEB-backed projects include $2 million for Cornell University to “use [environmental DNA] to quantify insect biodiversity and pollinator communities at solar facilities” and $1.3 million for the University of Arkansas to “assess biodiversity at large scale solar facilities to gain an understanding of solar-wildlife interactions, and benefits from native vegetation management practices.”

In Europe, a report from industry organization SolarPower Europe in late 2022 – co-authored by BirdLife – detailed best practice guidelines for solar industry stakeholders. The study focuses on regulation across the EU and implementation in different member states, along with examples of nature-positive solar sites across the bloc, including floating PV and agrivoltaic projects, and recommendations for environmental considerations at different solar farm phases.

One best-practice example was BayWa re’s Spitalhöfe solar park in Germany, which includes elements such as flowering islands, nest boxes and biodiversity corridors that provide paths and habitats for wild animals and flora. In addition, sheep are employed to graze the grass.

pv magazine will delve further into solar power and nature, examining the intersection of regulation and policy, and seek expert perspectives to discover how solar energy and, increasingly, co-sited energy storage can be mixed-use patches of open green space that are safeguards for nature.

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