NC Solar farms perform double duty

Published 10:36 am Tuesday, April 4, 2017

NC News Network

The growing number of solar farms in North Carolina require large tracts of land, and the areas around the solar panels must be free of tall vegetation.

Now some local solar companies have found a way to not only produce energy, but also use the land to host pollen-producing plants for bees and other beneficial insects critical to agriculture.

Kathryn Parker, vegetation construction manager with Strata Solar of Raleigh, said at first, it was hard to imagine how solar farms and native plants could coexist.

“They didn’t seem like natural partners for that inside-the-fence area,” Parker said. “They did seem like really good candidates for replacing the turf grasses that were being planted outside of the facility.”

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission is working with solar developers to establish recommendations for planting native pollinator habitats on solar farms. Bees are under increasing threat from disease, pesticides and loss of habitat. In late March, for the first time ever, a bumblebee species was placed on the Endangered Species List.

Parker said many cities and counties require visual buffers around a solar farm and, instead of ornamental shrubs, her company is using more native plants – like magnolias, wax myrtles and American holly. She said the native plants grow quickly, making it an easy business decision.

“That was something that, very early on, was kind of a no-brainer switch-out to start replacing more ornamental shrubs and trees with natives,” she said.

The Wildlife Resources Commission recommendations for planting include short-growing, native seed mixes under solar panels, and diverse seed mixes between the rows of panels and in the buffer areas.