Even towns that know to ask for pollinator-friendly solar often discover that they don’t wind up with it. It’s a case of the best laid plans coming to nothing – and all because no one knew what to watch out for. Yet there’s nothing surprising about a solar project intending on pollinator habitat and winding up without it. It usually stems from these common pitfalls in pollinator-friendly solar.

1) Change of Ownership

In most cases, the developer of the solar site is not the group that will maintain. it. Most often, they sell the project to someone else after the installation is complete. Even if the developer was very intent on creating pollinator habitat, the new owner may not feel the same. Even when they do, they may not have the experience or skill set to maintain native plants. Once ownership changes hands, you could lose all the hard work you’ve put in. To avoid this, make sure you require all new owners of the site to support pollinators by including language about pollinators in your maintenance and decommissioning clauses.

2) Lack of Accountability

In some cases, town engineers may provide suggested maintenance plans but nothing may require them to be followed. In many cases, it seems as if they are simply filed and never looked at again. In other cases, the maintenance plan doesn’t show understanding of the needs of native plants so that, even if implemented, it works against your pollinator goals. An alternative is to make following a pollinator-friendly maintenance plan part of the requirements to get site approval. The plan should include accountability checks, especially in the critical first three years, to ensure that the site is being maintained appropriately for pollinators.

3) Lack of Knowledge

Even where towns have a detailed maintenance plan that the site owners must follow, details can still trip things up. For instance, the solar developer may ask the town if they can substitute a cultivar of a native shrub if they aren’t able to locate the straight species. Most town officials lack the knowledge to know why that won’t work so it sounds like a tiny change of no importance. In the end, they can wind up with a solar installation filled with cultivars that don’t provide the pollinator habitat intended. The way to avoid having your work eroded in this manner is to require that any and all changes be approved by a pollinator specialist before being implemented.

4) Faulty Model Solar Laws

In New York State, we have a model solar law that has a built-in pitfall if you are trying to support pollinators. In its list of definitions, it lumps “managed insects” – meaning, honeybees – in with all other pollinators. As very few people understand the differences between honeybees (which are not native to North America) and endangered North American native bees, this can be perceived as an inconsequential detail. In reality, though, it means solar projects can be developed to support apiaries without a thought to how badly they might outcompete the local native bee populations. What you want, instead, is for your town to specifically protect native bees and make a distinction between native and non-native (‘managed”) bees. If your town still wants apiaries, there should be quantity and distance requirements based on a recent survey of local native bee populations and how they might be impacted by apiaries.

5) Visual Screens

Towns get stuck thinking about visual screens. The emphasis on a blockade of evergreen trees inhibits creativity. It also underscores the idea that generating energy has to be ugly – so ugly that we don’t dare look at it. A better approach is to think how you can create something beautiful, rather than trying to hide an eyesore. For instance, see if there’s an area where a couple of benches could be added, to allow people to enjoy the wildflowers. Even in agrivoltaic installations, a native plant garden can be installed around the perimeter.

6) Misunderstanding Timelines

It takes at least three years to establish native plants. If town officials don’t understand this, it can be easy for them to scrap the pollinator aspect of a project. I’ve heard horror stories of pollinator gardens being ripped out and re-sodded when a new council got elected who didn’t understand the timeline of native plants. The best way around this is to incorporate information about the timeline into any agreement with a solar developer. If the language is in the agreement, then future elected officials will also know what to expect.

Can your town navigate these common pitfalls in pollinator-friendly solar?

Make sure your town has the information and support it needs to sidestep these common pitfalls in pollinator-friendly solar.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash