Solar plants and farms have a lot in common, notably they both need lots of sun.
While we will always prefer small solar to big, utility-scale plants that consume thousands of acres, big solar is increasingly seen as a place to produce energy and provide nectar for pollinators – it could even grow crops.
What surrounds the thousands of solar panels in a big project? At concentrating solar plants like Ivanpah, the solar field can be built around the natural contours of the land, retaining native vegetation under the mirrors, and avoiding areas of sensitive vegetation. Heliostats sit on poles placed directly into the ground without concrete foundations.
But at many large projects, the land is scraped of all vegetation and grass is planted. That’s led to new businesses, such as North Carolina-based Sun-Raised Farms, which brings in sheep from local farms to keep the grass short.
Other solar farms plant native wildflowers all around the solar panels turning it into a huge meadow for bees and butterflies. That’s happening at smaller installations too. In New Jersey, a school gets its power from a 6.1 MW solar array. Around the perimeter are about 900,000 honey bees, nourished by wildflowers planted among and around the solar panels.
In Japan, farmers are already planting crops under solar panels that don’t need full sun. There’s even a term for it – solar-sharing. Maybe that’s the next step here too.
Another idea is to grow agave for biofuels around solar panels, watering plants with runoff from washing the panels: