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Shade From Solar Panels Increases Abundance of Flowers in Late Summer, Benefiting Pollinators

Oregon State University

A new study found that the shade provided by solar panels increased the abundance of flowers under the panels and delayed the timing of their blooming, both findings that could help the farming community.

The study, believed to be the first to look at the impact of solar panels on flowering plants and insects, has important implications for solar developers who manage the land with solar panels, as well as agricultural and health advocates. of pollinators seeking pollinator land. habitat restoration.

The Oregon State University findings come at a time when some states, including Minnesota, North Carolina, Maryland, Vermont, and Virginia, have developed statewide guidelines and incentives to promote pollinator-focused solar installations.

“The surrogate for solar panels is generally managed to limit plant growth,” said Maggie Graham, an Oregon State faculty research assistant and lead author of the paper.

“My thinking going into this research was can we change that? Why not plant under solar panels with something beneficial to the surrounding ecosystem, such as flowers that attract pollinators? Would insects use it? This study shows that the answer is yes ”.

Pollinating insects help in the reproduction of 75% of flowering plant species and 35% of crop species worldwide. In the United States, pollination services for agriculture are valued at $ 14 billion annually.

Habitat for pollinating insects is declining globally as a result of urbanization, agricultural intensification, and land development. Changes in the global climate can also cause changes in the availability of habitats.

Meanwhile, solar PV installation in the US has increased by an average of 48% per year over the past decade, and current capacity is expected to double again over the next five years, the researchers say.

Increasing demand for solar panels generates interest in the field of agrivoltaics, where solar energy production is combined with agricultural production, such as planting agricultural crops or grazing animals, on the same land.

Graham works with Chad Higgins, associate professor at the Oregon State College of Agricultural Sciences. Higgins recently published an article that found that joint development land for solar PV and agriculture could provide 20% of the total electricity generation in the United States with an investment of less than 1% of the annual budget of the States. United.

In addition, the large-scale installation of agrivoltaic systems could lead to an annual reduction of 330,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions in the US, the equivalent of 75,000 off-road cars per year, and the creation of more than 100,000 jobs in rural communities, while with minimal impact on crop yields, Higgins found.

The new study led by Graham and published in the journal Scientific reports, was conducted at the 45-acre Eagle Point solar plant in Jackson County, Oregon.

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The research team collected data on plant and pollinator populations during seven two-day sampling events from June to September 2019. Those corresponded to post-peak flowering times. Extending flowering times is important for pollinating insects because it provides them with food later in the season, the researchers said.

The researchers collected data from 48 different plant species and 65 different insect species.

The study sites were divided into three categories: full shade plots under solar panels, partial shade plots under solar panels, and full sun plots not under panels. The findings included:

The floral abundance was higher in the partial shade plots, where 4% more flowers were found compared to the full sun and full shade plots.

The number of flower species and the diversity of flowers did not differ between the different plots.

An average of 3% more pollinating insects in partial shade and full sun plots than in full shade plots.

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The number of insect species and the diversity of insects was higher in partial shade and full sun than in full shade.

The number of insects per flower did not differ between the different plots.

“Unused or underutilized land under solar panels represents an opportunity to increase the expected decline in pollinator habitat,” Graham said. “Near agricultural land, this also has the potential to benefit the surrounding agricultural community and presents an avenue for future studies.”

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“Solar energy developers, policy makers, agricultural communities, and pollinator health advocates seeking to maximize the efficiency of land use, biodiversity, and pollination services could consider pollinator habitat in photovoltaic solar sites as an option ”.

Fountain: Oregon State University

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