It's June in southwestern Minnesota. The sun is high, the sky a vivid blue. Powerful sun rays fall on long rows of angled solar panels rooted to the ground by steel posts. Sunlight-loving plants fill the 15-foot spaces between rows and around the site's edges, while shade-tolerant plants grow under the panels. A light breeze lifts the humidity from the air and brings forward a chorus of industrious insect song across the prairie. Bees fly from purple prairie clover to purple prairie clover collecting orange pollen. Beetles lumber among the blazing star as monarch butterflies drink nectar around them. Somewhere within a clump of prairie dropseed, tiny caterpillars snack on blades of grass.
This lively plot of prairie landscaping is no accident. DNR experts recommended the plantings, and the solar site developers included them in the project, as part of an effort to make the most of these power-producing parcels. Each plant was carefully selected and planted for its ability to attract pollinators and for its short stature so it doesn't shade the panels.
Commercial solar projects, which range from 20 acres to over 1,000 acres, sell power to electric utility companies across Minnesota. More than 4,000 acres of commercial solar projects are being installed in 2016 and 2017, and over half of them include pollinator habitat.
"It's a great collaborative approach that helps pollinators have a home," says DNR environmental review ecologist Kevin Mixon, who helped develop new guidelines for such projects.
Small solar gardens are permitted by local governments. Projects that generate 50 megawatts or more need a permit from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which relies on the Department of Natural Resources to review projects for environmental impacts. The DNR recommends ways to minimize impacts or add environmental enhancements. In 2016, a new suggestion was added: Use the space between the panels and around the edges to support pollinators.
Solar developers began contacting the DNR for help in creating pollinator-friendly habitat. Some developers were required to include such habitat as a part of their PUC permit conditions; others have voluntarily established habitat. DNR experts began collaborating with other agencies and natural resource professionals to create a guide that would help developers navigate prairie plant establishment and maintenance, find experienced native seed and restoration firms to work with, and provide a consistent standard for pollinator habitat. The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources developed the standard in cooperation with the DNR.
While this work was underway, the Minnesota Legislature in May 2016 passed a statute that encourages solar developers to consult both the guidelines and the standard.
"The beauty of the pollinator-friendly solar standard is that it provides so many different benefits," says Rob Davis of the environmental advocacy group Fresh Energy, which supported the standard's development. "Whether you are passionate about local energy independence, productive use of farmland, pollinator and wildlife conservation, or water and soil quality, the pollinator-friendly solar standard is a simple way to realize more of the benefits people love."
Minnesota's guidelines and standards have been used as a template for solar-site pollinator habitat in five other states: Wisconsin, North Dakota, Iowa, Vermont, and Maryland. Because of the partnerships of natural resource professionals, agencies, prairie restoration companies, and solar companies willing to embrace this new idea, many people and pollinators will benefit.
Megan Benage, DNR regional ecologist