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Solar Power and Pollinator Habitat on Agriculture Land

Utility companies and developers are quickly scaling up solar power across the Midwest. As of August 2021, there are 73,000 megawatts of proposed solar generation in the transmission queue of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator.

Those states with the most proposed solar capacity include Indiana (17,202 MW), Illinois (9,526 MW), Michigan (9,390 MW), and Wisconsin (7,961 MW). One megawatt of large-scale solar power requires between three and ten acres of land. Many of the proposed solar facilities are for agricultural land. To promote multiple land uses and assuage public concerns about farmland use for energy generation, researchers and companies are experimenting with planting vegetation that provides forage and/or nesting sites for pollinating insects at solar sites. This is required for solar facilities built on Michigan land enrolled in a state farmland preservation program. A swift transition to renewable energy is needed to limit global warming to 1.5 or 2.0 Celsus. Furthermore, one of the key threats facing pollinators is climate change. Another key threat to pollinators is habitat loss and the use of insecticides in agriculture. Therefore, addressing both environmental challenges simultaneously would be ideal.  

During fall 2020, a project-based capstone class at Michigan State University in the Science, Technology, Environment and Public Policy minor focused on the development of solar power on agricultural land in Michigan. The students interviewed 59 people from different stakeholder groups related to solar development and pollinator habitat. In spring and summer 2021, a group of five dedicated students—Hannah Graff, Carolyn Ouellet, Skyler Leslie, Danny Olweean, and Alex Wycoff—participated in analyzing the interview findings and writing a report with the results. NextEra Energy, a large solar developer, provided the funds to make this unique class possible through a corporate gift to James Madison College.

This recent report, published by IPPSR, explores stakeholder perceptions of siting solar power on agricultural land in Michigan and the benefits, costs, and feasibility issues associated with solar pollinator habitat. It also overviews options for incorporating agriculture use, such as growing crops and grazing, into solar facilities. The report illustrates that the agricultural community is divided on whether agricultural land should be used for solar power. While pollinator habitat improves perceptions among some stakeholders, it does not for all. Furthermore, the report found there is significant potential for public misunderstanding of pollinator habitat outcomes, as the aesthetics and time to establish the habitat may disappoint stakeholders with certain expectations.

Pollinator habitat can increase the complexity of deploying solar power plants, and numerous questions remain unanswered about, for example, choice of seed mix; requirements for increasing panel height to accommodate taller vegetation; site preparation needs; operations and maintenance (O&M) costs and benefits; location of the pollinator habitat within the solar installation; and the best designs for supporting honey bees, wild bees or monarch butterflies. Furthermore, the report found little evidence that solar pollinator habitat will tangibly benefit agricultural operations. The costs of designing and installing high-quality pollinator habitat are at tension with utility request-for-proposal (RFP) processes that serve as a race to the bottom to select the lowest cost bidder rather than the most sustainably designed project. Substantive changes in governance and funding structures will be needed to realize the benefits of developing solar pollinator habitat on agricultural land.

Since there is a market for renewable energy but generally not a market mechanism for benefitting native pollinators, and because the RFP process prioritizes the lowest cost bid, the report recommends that public investment should be made in the early phases for the following:

  • Fund the costs of site preparation and seed mix for the solar developers who win RFP bids in the early stages of integrating solar pollinator habitat into solar installations.
  • Formally engage the local public in setting priorities and goals for the habitat and educating them so that expectations are in line with reality. Conduct systematic social science research on whether pollinator habitat changes public acceptance of solar facilities.
  • Fund the careful monitoring of solar pollinator habitat to measure its effects on pollinators. Well-defined goals for the habitat must be established in order to measure success. Goals should be varied across early pollinator sites to measure success (e.g., benefitting threatened and endangered native species, benefitting native species in general, benefitting managed honey bees, and increasing pollinator habitat connectivity.)

For a more extensive report on the research findings and recommendations, please review the full report.

Dr. Moore is an Associate Professor in James Madison College at Michigan State University. Her teaching and research interests focus on the social, policy, equity and security dimensions of energy systems, particularly those that cross nation-state borders and are undergoing dramatic change.