Australia’s renewable energy transition has spurred the construction of dozens of large-scale solar farms. The boom helps reduce Australia’s reliance on fossil fuels, but requires large areas of land to be converted to house solar infrastructure.

Solar farms are mostly built in rural areas. this has raised concerned about a potential decline in both agricultural production, as arable land is used for solar energy production, and wildlife habitat.

But there are ways to expand solar infrastructure so that both nature and people win. we have already seen this in the so-calledagrovoltaic”, where the earth under and around the solar panels is used for cultivate and graze cattle. What’s going on “conservativevoltaic”, combining conservation and solar energy?

My new research examines whether solar farms could also be used to help conserve native species. I found that solar panels can provide valuable habitat for wildlife and potentially benefit both the land and farmers.

sheep graze between solar panels
The ‘agrivoltaic’ involves combining solar generation with agriculture, but what about the ‘conservotaic’?

A new place to call home

Our wild landscapes are dwindling and protected areas such as national parks cover only about 9% from Australia

Many agricultural landscapes have been cleared to provide pasture for cattle. It means that tree-dependent wildlife has lost vast tracts of habitat.

Therefore, we must find new places for wildlife to feed, rest, shelter and reproduce.

My work examines how solar farms on farmland can double as wildlife habitat. It involves surveys and traps to identify which plants and animals occupy solar farms, how long they take to recolonize, and how we can further promote biodiversity.

My new article coins a new term for this dual use of land: conservoltaics. I highlight research from abroad on how solar parks can bring conservation benefits and describe the research that is still needed.

Solar panels add three-dimensional structure and complexity to an environment. They can provide shelter for animals from predators and the elements, just like artificial reefs in lakes and oceans. They can also act as perches or nesting structures.

The solar infrastructure also creates a mosaic of sun and shade patches, and thus provide many “micro-habitats” for plants and animals.

Research Europe has shown that large solar farms can improve the diversity and abundance of plants, grasses, butterflies, bees and birds.

In addition, the vegetation between the rows of solar panels can also provide travel corridors, nesting sites, and refuges for wildlife.

Read more:
Why Queensland Is Still Ground Zero For Australian Deforestation

butterfly on the plant in front of the solar panel
Research shows that solar panels can increase the presence of pollinators like butterflies.

management is key

research suggests various management strategies that can maximize the benefits of solar farms for wildlife.

Land managers must provide a diverse mix of flowering plant species to encourage pollinators. And the grass between the solar panels should not be cut too short or too often. Pollinators prefer tall vegetation where they can feed, although vegetation should not be so tall as to shade solar panels.

Whenever possible, the use of herbicides and other chemicals should be avoided. And solar farms should be connected to other vegetated areas, using features like hedgerows and wildflower strips, so that wildlife can move between the solar farm and other habitats.

Landowners who combine solar farms with wildlife habitat can reap several benefits.

They could receive financial returns by earning environmental credits through schemes that reward carbon sequestration and biodiversity enhancements.

They can also improve the health of your land, for example by increasing pollination or providing a habitat for predators such as perches or raptor nests, which in turn could help control pests.

However, much work remains to be done to understand these opportunities.

small frog in human hand in front of solar panels
Farm management strategies can maximize the benefits of solar farms for wildlife.
eric nordberg

Looking to the future

The benefit of renewable energy in reducing carbon emissions is well known. But more work is needed to understand how solar farms can benefit wildlife.

Research is also lacking on how to locate, set up, and manage solar farms to best enhance biodiversity. Collaboration between industry, land managers and researchers is needed so that clean energy production and conservation can go hand in hand.

Read more:
Australia needs a lot more solar and wind power, but where are the best sites? We map them all

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