The shade patterns created by the panels provide a range of habitats for plants, with those in the shade often flowering later. Pollinators generally need flowers until October, so a range of bloom times helps extend the time they can spend foraging. The possibility of growing crops in panel microclimates, a system called agrivoltaics, is also being explored.
Underground biodiversity and soil can also benefit from solar farm installations. The shift from intensive agriculture to permanent grassland means less fertilizer, insecticides and herbicides, and less disturbance from tillage. This could allow soil health to improve, although further research is needed to confirm and quantify this effect.
An experiment in progress
At Keele University, we recently installed a low-carbon power generation park consisting of 12,500 solar panels, two wind turbines and a large battery to store excess electricity, all connected to the campus through a smart grid capable of controlling energy demand in different buildings, allowing the university to maximize the use of its own renewable energy and reduce the use of grid electricity when it has emissions higher carbon. During the site’s first year of operation, we have launched a study that will span several years to research the effect of solar panels on biodiversity and soil health.
Plants, pollinators, amphibians, badgers, birds, bats and small mammals are all monitored, along with various soil features. Although construction has disturbed the soil and wildlife, our monitoring shows that the area is recovering quickly. Large areas of the site have naturally established grassland habitat, increasing the diversity of plant species compared to when the site was a plowed field. Foxes and predatory birds as well as a wide variety of insects are among the visitors so far.