As the EU and the UK aim to achieve net zero ambitions by 2050, switching to the security of home-grown energy, such as solar, is quickly becoming a priority. In October last year, the EU Commission endorsed the creation of a new European Solar PV Industry Alliance, aiming to create 320GW of solar photovoltaic by 2025 and 600GW by 2030.
With this expansion naturally comes points of contention, and a key debate centres around the use of our limited land space.
For a variety of reasons, nature across Europe is under threat. In Britain, wildflower meadows have decreased by 97% since the 1930s, largely due to intensive farming and population growth. Most alarming, however, is that key pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, and birds, have subsequently been in decline. This affects not only the environment, but also the economy – pollinators are worth around 153 billion euros a year. Against this backdrop, concerns have surfaced about the effects of renewable energy projects on biodiversity.
We recently addressed the benefits of agrivoltaics, debunking myths around arable land and solar farms being unable to function in tandem. The key takeaway carries over to this debate: land used for solar farms does not have to be an opportunity lost for other stakeholders. Land protected and nurtured for solar farms can be a space in which we preserve and grow biodiversity. Solar farms and land used in conservation have the same motivators and goals. Here, we explore the benefits solar farms bring to conservation when managed correctly and the need for policies to ensure they do so.
The myth: solar farms harm wildlife
It has been argued that solar farms may fragment habitats and PVs can affect movement of species, hiding places, preying strategies, and availability of food. Birds and bats are said to confuse solar arrays for water sources, and there could also be effects on local microclimates and temperature.
However, research1 conducted to show these damaging effects of solar on biodiversity is very limited. Reviews have pointed to it lacking sturdiness, and the damage reported can be mitigated with proper land management, which was not properly put in place previously. When managed correctly, solar farms and biodiversity can complement each other greatly.
Solar can benefit biodiversity
In reality, solar farms, can, under the right land management circumstances, deliver significant benefits to biodiversity. A well-managed solar farm can become a nature reserve for the whole of its operating lifetime, as it means land is protected from other uses. Solar farms need minimal human disturbance and can be in place for 30 to 40 years, providing shelter for species and wildflowers, delivering on Europe’s rewilding missions.
There are a range of conservation initiatives that can be implemented. Planting hedgerows and creating wildflower meadows is more than possible beneath the solar array, and this habitat can benefit from a broad range of wildlife, sheltered from extreme weather, winds and heavy rains. A study2 conducted in 2013 assessed the biodiversity at four solar farms during the mid-summer, including a control plot for each, maintained under the same conditions. They found that “all four solar farms displayed some form of biodiversity increase as compared to their control plots. This indicates that the land management associated with the solar farms was more beneficial to the biodiversity indicators (herbs, bumblebees, and butterflies) than the previous arable land use.”
As a result of increased wildflowers and pollinators, land used for solar farms can become a haven for larger species, including hares, hedgehogs, and buzzards that graze on and shelter in these shared spaces. Eden Renewables is managing the wide margins around solar farms to produce grassland that is nesting ground for birds and larger mammals. They have been successful in their approach at a solar farm in South Devon where the land has been managed to encourage wild breeding birds. This resulted in two sightings of a rare, endangered bird species, the Cirl Bunting, which is only found in a very small area in the UK.
Beyond the operational life of a solar farm, land is not lost or damaged. Solar farmland is entirely reversible and sustainable, allowing sites to continue to feed into biodiversity goals. Other benefits of solar farms on overall biodiversity measures include flood mitigation, carbon storage and soil erosion mitigation. The ecological value of solar farms is indeed recognised by organisations such as The National Trust, the RSPB, the Bumblebee Trust, and Friends of the Earth.
Land management rules need to be followed and updated
Crucially, for solar farms to truly benefit biodiversity, certain measures need to be in place and followed. The BRE National Solar Centre Biodiversity Guidance for Solar Developments provides an in depth look at how to monitor and report on solar sites to continue to prioritise biodiversity. This includes checking for weeds, browse damage (where animals such as deer have been grazing) or dead crops, and regularly counting flora and fauna.
A study3 from 2017 recommended developing biodiversity friendly operational procedures including the following:
- Installation/retention of boundary features such as hedgerows, ditches, stone walls, rough grassland, field margins and scrub
- Planting pollen and nectar strips
- Security fencing – plant growing climbers e.g. honeysuckle, and ensure there is a gap between the base of the fences and the ground to allow small wildlife to pass through
- Grassland habitat – e.g. wildflower meadow and tussocky grassland
- Controlled grazing by sheep between panels, with a pause in spring and summer to allow vegetation growth
- Installation of artificial structures such as nest boxes, hibernacula and log piles
Whilst it is important that we challenge damaging stereotypes of solar farms bringing harm, we need to make sure this is backed up by policy and management that continues to meet the biodiversity criteria, so the two can continue to complement each other. No two projects are the same, there is not a one-size-fits all approach to protecting biodiversity on solar farms. A tailored approach is necessary to make sure that local environmental factors are taken into place.
Cero’s Larks Green Solar Farm
At Cero, we recently announced the successful energisation of the Larks Green solar farm, a project situated just outside of Bristol. Spanning 250 acres, it is a great demonstration of how solar farms can preserve local wildlife and existing habitats, as well as enhance biodiversity. Compared to arable land, pastoral farms like Larks Green are inherently richer in biodiversity from the offset, and our goal was to build on the biodiversity already present in the area, making sure to protect and enhance the local environment.
Building on Larks Green’s existing natural assets has been a fundamental principle in the development of the PV project. The integration of 10 bird boxes across the site promotes avian habitats and encourages the flourishing of local bird species. The team has created 9.9 kilometres of new hedgerow and planted 9 hectares of wildflowers, both essential elements in supporting a diverse range of plant and animal species. These initiatives go beyond what is legally required, demonstrating our growing commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility. Larks Green’s ongoing yearly monitoring program will ensure that the site’s ecosystem remains in great condition, we are determined to stay ahead of the curve in promoting biodiversity, even when it is not explicitly mandated in planning regulations.
Cero’s Larks Green solar farm is a prime example of how renewable energy and biodiversity conservation can go hand in hand. By exceeding the standard expectations and embracing innovative practices, we are proud to contribute positively to the environment while fostering a brighter, cleaner future for generations to come. As we continue to expand our initiatives and explore new opportunities, Larks Green serves as a future model for us.
Image: Larks Green solar farm
Where we stand
As we face an ongoing decline of bees, butterflies, and birds across Europe, we need to ensure careful consideration of the natural environment. In the long term, solar farms can deliver benefits to biodiversity by mitigating the impacts of climate change. Although concerns about whether in the shorter-term solar farms damage biodiversity are valid, evidence shows that with proper land management plans, they can actually provide a refuge for species and habitats and increase biodiversity.
Ultimately, solar plays a crucial role in solving the climate crisis and we want to be front and centre of Europe’s transition to net zero. At Cero Generation, we recognise we are still on this journey, learning from science and best practise to develop solar projects that continue to benefit biodiversity. We are committed to playing the educator role – to counter false myths about topics surrounding solar, urging the sector to protect and enhance biodiversity whilst also addressing the net zero challenge.
 Gasparalos et al (2017)