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A magical solution': Solar developers planting flowers that could help save butterflies and bees

For more than a century Logansport's electricity was generated using gritty black coal. Now, its latest generating facility will feature 80 acres of solar panels, and something far more attractive —  flowers.

The plan is part of a national trend to use solar farms to create habitats for hundreds of buzzing bee and butterfly species whose numbers have been depleted by habitat destruction.

Solar projects with habitats such as these, called pollinator-friendly solar projects, have been lauched in 20 states, according to the Center for Pollinators in Energy. At least three new pollinator-friendly solar projects have been announced in Indiana this year.

The practice is described by developers as a a way to accomplish multiple goals at once, namely strengthening renewable energy and expanding natural habitats.

Habitat loss and exposure to chemicals such as pesticides have killed off large portions of bee, butterfly, fly, and beetle populations. Numbers of honeybees, one of the most widely tracked pollinator species because of their contributions to the food supply, are falling by as much as 30 percent each winter in the U.S. and in Indiana.

At the same time, the solar industry is booming. Solar installation is expected to be the fastest growing job in coming years, and the country is on track to double its solar capacity in just half a decade. Indiana, which currently ranks in the top half of states for  solar capacity, is expected to follow this trend

While one solar site with pollinating plants isn't likely to make a dent in the widespread habitat losses affecting bees and butterflies, a lot of sites could provide real benefit for these creatures, Purdue University entomologist Brock Harpur said.

"We need solutions that do more than one thing," Harpur said. "We have to say yes, we need solar, but we can also do it while we save the bees ... it's exciting to be able to do two things at once and feel like it's making a difference."

he Logansport project, to be completed by Inovateus Solar, was announced Friday to coincide with National Pollinator Week. Hoosier companies Emergent Solar Energy and  Solential Energy have also recently completed pollinator-friendly projects, and Duke Energy also sewed a native wildflowers at a solar farm in Indiana this spring.

'We can really buffer the species we have left'

Constructing a solar farm often requires removing vegetation, flattening the land and building on top, sometimes filling it back in with gravel or turf grass, said Jordan Macknick, an engineer and environmental analyst at the National Energy Renewable Laboratory.

But recently solar projects that had a minimal or even positive impact on the environment started growing in popularity nationwide, Macknick said.

"The founding principle of low-impact is that it's designed to improve the land and improve the soil," Macknick said. "It wasn’t until really the last five years that we’ve really seen interest in pollinator friendly solar ... take off, and it really has been increasing at an exponential rate.”

Pollinators are responsible for 35% of global crop production. There's a "high need" for those buzzing bees around Indiana, Harpur said, and a collection of pollinator havens across the state could benefit them greatly.

"The aggregate effect, I think, is greater than any individual effect," Harpur said. "If we have many of these pollinator sites across the state, we can really buffer the species that we have left."

The plants themselves can also help nearby farmers. In recent years, Hoosier farmers have suffered from flash floods and increased rainfall due to climate change. Whereas turf grass' roots only dig six inches or so into the soil, many native plant roots grow as deep as 5 to 12 feet — retaining more water during heavy rains and providing more stability against flooding.

The plants could also create cooler microclimates underneath the solar panels, boosting the efficiency and productivity of the machines, Macknick said. 

All benefits considered, deciding to make the 80-acre solar farm a pollinator-friendly project was a no-brainer, said Jordan Richardson, business development manager for Inovateus Solar's Logansport project.

Journalist source: Gibson, L. (2020, JULY 8). INDY STAR. Retrieved from

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