This blog was written by Sarah Gilliam, former Communications Coordinator at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.Guest Blog | June 1, 2017
You might not think that the humble honeybee has much in common with solar power. But actually the two are connected in unique and interesting ways. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy has a special connection to honeybees with three residents beekeepers on staff, a hive at our Asheville office, and it goes without saying that we’re pretty big fans of harnessing the sun for clean, renewable energy.
When it comes to honeybees, there is not a more efficient animal on this planet and humans have a lot to learn from these hardworking, social insects. It’s no surprise that smart land use and business practices are being deployed around the globe to foster solar development and support pollinators. Solar farms need land, which can easily coexist as a food-rich “pollinator friendly” habitat.
One solar installer in North Carolina has grabbed headlines for finding a way to “host pollen-producing plants for bees and other beneficial insects” around large solar installations.
By far the sweetest (pun intended) bee + solar combos we found in the U.S., is Minnesota-based energy co-op Connexus Energy who has partnered with local beekeepers to set up beehives in the same field as the solar panels. They even provide “solar honey” to customers “who have subscribed to receive a portion of their household energy from the solar garden.” Connexus’ site also has a “garden beneath its solar array that includes 10 species of native grasses and 36 species of flowers” to provide pollen and nectar (what eventually becomes honey) for the busy bees.
Swapping out gravel and turf grass, often located underneath solar panels, for native flowers and grasses, is a great way to provide pollen and nectar (2 main food sources) for nearby bees and other pollinators. We recommend selecting native, pesticide-free plants that grow between 1-2 feet tall in full sun, depending on how far off the ground the solar panels are. If you select plants that grow too tall, then you risk blocking sun from hitting the panels and creating energy. To find plants that will grow in your region, click here.
“Many cities and counties require visual buffers around a solar farm and, instead of ornamental shrubs, our company is using more native plants – like magnolias, wax myrtles and American holly. These native plants grow quickly, making it an easy business decision.” – Kathryn Parker, vegetation construction manager with Strata Solar of Raleigh.
Our own organization has experimented with providing pollinator habitat around our solar arrays. We’ve had mixed results (some plants just didn’t take or grew for one season but didn’t return). It’s important to find the right plants for your area, but a successful garden can provide food for bees, attractive landscaping for people and cut down on the time needed to cut grass and maintain vegetation: a triple score!