Community solar gardens are increasing throughout Minnesota. But for those who are not familiar with them, they are large areas of land covered by solar panels. People are able to buy subscriptions to these panels through their local utility. This is often a popular option because you can increase renewable energy on the grid without having to buy and maintain the panels yourself.
Land used for solar arrays can vary quite significantly but often a lot of land is in use for a garden. A small community solar garden is about 4 to 8 acres and a large community solar garden is upwards of 30 to 40 acres. For reference, one acre is just under the size of a football field. In some parts of Minnesota there are “utility solar” projects that range from 600 to 1,000 acres. Those larger projects will function as solar power plants for utilities and not something an individual will subscribe to – they simply get the benefit of increased solar on the grid.
The term Community Solar Garden makes sense from an energy perspective, since energy utilities are harvesting energy from them, but we don’t usually think of them as gardens with lovely flowers and bees. However, that changed during this year’s legislative session, when agriculture and conservation leaders in Minnesota’s legislature authored a bill that designated pollinator friendly best management practices for solar gardens. This bill names key criteria for what it means for a solar site to receive a pollinator friendly designation. Prior to this, a solar developer could call their solar project pollinator friendly without any way of measuring whether or not it was actually beneficial to pollinators.
Audubon Minnesota and Fresh Energy provided guidance for this bill, ensuring that it would refer to the robust standards of the Solar Site Pollinator Habitat Assessment worksheet, which is part of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources’ Pollinator Plan. The assessment includes a questionnaire that scores a solar site from 0-100 points. Scores ranging from 85-100 are considered exceptional habitat providers. But here’s the kicker: the standard will only be enforced if the official paperwork for the solar garden uses the phrase “the site shall be developed in a way that is beneficial to pollinators.” Similar but slightly different phrases won’t cut it. For example, if a solar site application states, “we will plant pollinator plants where feasible,” that solar site is unlikely to provide any measurable benefit to pollinators.
Why is this important? Going back to the math and measurements on these projects, one acre of a solar garden measures out to roughly 600, 6′ x 12′ pollinator gardens. That’s a huge area! Plus, birds and other wildlife benefit from the added habitat. The native vegetation increases local plant and insect diversity, providing food and shelter for some of our most beloved songbirds. In a time when our birds, bees, and other pollinators are struggling to find good habitat and healthy food, making solar sites into pollinator gardens seems like a no-brainer.
All solar sites must go through a permitting process with the city or county they will be developed in and it’s up to the residents and subscribers to ask that the process include habitat criteria as well. If you are aware of a solar site being developed near you, I encourage you to work with your city leaders to ask that the solar developer meet Minnesota’s standard for pollinator-friendly solar. It will be good for bees and people, and not to mention a lot more beautiful!
If you have any questions about this process or how you can influence your city’s solar standards, I welcome you to email me at Julie@conservationminnesota.org.