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Combining solar power-and beekeeping

The Eagle Point solar project in Oregon is not just producing solar power-it is also the largest "solar apiary" in the U.S., a solar energy project designed to benefit pollinators, being home to 48 bee colonies.

By Dianne Mettler

Pine Gate Renewables, headquartered in Asheville, North Carolina, decided to try something new when it developed its Eagle Point Solar project in Jackson County, Oregon. In short, they decided to embark on a pollinator-friendly solar farm and the 41-acre project—using Boviet modules, SMA inverters and Soltec trackers—became the first solar/apiary site in the U.S. In addition to creating 9.9 megawatts of renewable energy, it housed 48 honeybee hives.

Claudia Emerson, who manages a two-person team as the Director of Operations and Maintenance at Pine Gate Renewables, explains why she got it started.

"Our SolarCulture initiative started back in 2017 when we wanted to explore alternative ways of managing the land under our control for the long-term, to be better environmental stewards, but also to find a more sustainable method of land management."

Back then, the method for maintaining sites involved paying a subcontractor and crew to mow solar facilities every four to six weeks when the grass got taller than the solar panels. "It's a pretty unsustainable and inefficient model because it's a reoccurring expense for the 20-year life of the project," says Emerson. "Not to mention, we're not really valuing that land that we have, or finding additional value of all this land that's under our control."

Emerson's answer was to launch the company's SolarCulture initiative.

"After reviewing a few possibilities, the solution I landed on that made the most sense economically, as well as environmentally, was pollinator solar, because there are species of pollinating plants that only grow to be about two to three feet tall, which is lower than the panel height that we have on our facilities."

Pollinating plants located under a solar array sounds simple, but to make this happen successfully requires real work and upfront costs.

"You have some additional site preparation required to prepare the land for this pollinating species," explains Emerson. "And you have to compete with some of the vegetation that's been on the site for years, such as the grasses and the weeds that are trying to out-compete and overcome the pollinating species. But between year four and six, we're finding that we break even, cost-wise. And the ongoing operational costs are less expensive because we're not having to mow six times a year—just once or twice."

 
Pine Gate Renewables' first apiary project was in 2017 and these types of dual purpose farms—solar and pollinating—have continued to be part of its SolarCulture initiative to protect and preserve the agricultural land where their solar farms are erected. Seven of the 80 Pine Gate facilities now have pollinator habitats.  
  

Once in place, Pine Gate works with local conservation groups—the experts on native and pollinating vegetation—to manage the facility and oversee vegetation. In the end, once established, a pollinator habitat is low cost as well as environment-friendly.

"I just think it's such an amazing opportunity," says Emerson. "With all the acreage that we have under our control as a solar energy company, why not find a greater use for all of this land, instead of planting grass and instead plant pollinator habitats to support all of the surrounding pollinators in that area?"

A lot has happened since the first apiary project in 2017 and these types of dual purpose farms—solar and pollinating—have continued to be part of Pine Gate's SolarCulture initiative to protect and preserve the agricultural land where their solar farms are erected. Seven of the 80 Pine Gate facilities now have pollinator habitats.

 
  Once its projects are in place, Pine Gate Renewables works with local conservation groups-the experts on native and pollinating vegetation—to manage a facility and oversee vegetation. In the end, once established, a pollinator habitat is low cost as well as environment-friendly.
  

"I work with local consultants and local seed growers in these regions to identify what the best mix is," says Emerson. After that, she researches local companies, to buy the seeds close to the project site and therefore
familiar with the region.

SolarCulture, however, isn't just about pollinating plants. "Other SolarCulture methods that we're implementing are wildlife-friendly fencing, also known as wildlife-permeable fencing," explains Emerson. "With this fencing the gate openings are wider than those of a chain linked fence traditionally installed on solar facilities. The wider openings allow smaller animals to pass through. So we're not blocking their habitat. Instead, we're allowing them to continue using the land as part of their habitat."

Pine Gate receives help monitoring gates from the North Carolina branch of the Nature Conservancy. "What they're testing is if small animals are actually passing through the site as we would anticipate, or if maybe the solar equipment is a deterrent to them," says Emerson. "We are happy to announce that they are using wildlife fencing! And we've captured some really great pictures through trail cameras. They have videos of foxes jumping in and out of the site and playing in the solar field. And it's truly incredible to me that we are not blocking the habitat, or removing a habitat from these animals' lives, and we're allowing them to co-exist with the solar facility. So that's been a great success."

 
Pine Gate Renewables' 41-acre Eagle Point Solar project in Jackson County, Oregon, uses Boviet modules, SMA inverters and Soltec trackers, and became the first solar/apiary site in the U.S. In addition to creating 9.9 megawatts of renewable energy, it houses 48 honeybee hives.  
  

Although there is no special permitting to make a solar facility pollinator friendly, Emerson says it's much less work and expense to start it in the planning phases, rather than changing up an active solar farm. Although, she says, Pine Gate has done it with additional site prep and a lot of financial modeling.

"I'm retrofitting two additional sites in the Willamette Valley area of Oregon," Emerson says. "Retrofitting a solar site to have a pollinator habitat is a much more difficult task than installing the pollinator habitat up front during construction.

"Due to the sediment and erosion control measures we have in place, you have to have ground control—ground cover or some type of vegetation covering the ground in order to maintain your permits and in order to complete construction. We cannot leave just bare ground."

When retrofitting, it's harder to remove the grass and then re-seed again. "We're duplicating tasks," she says, "as well as fighting work that was completed by our other departments just a year or so ago during the construction phase, not to mention the difficulties in maneuvering seeders around a completed solar array. So it's much easier if I can get involved with the construction team prior to construction and incorporate the pollinator habitat into their plans."

 
  Pine Gate Renewables, headquartered in Asheville, North Carolina, started its SolarCulture initiative when it wanted to explore alternative ways of managing the land under its control for the long-term—to be better environmental stewards, but also to find a more sustainable method of land management.
  

Before proposing any pollinator habitat, Emerson says analysis must be done. "We look at how the land was used historically, what past chemicals were used, if any. Some chemicals and herbicides have a long residual effect on the land and if we seed, it's going to just kill those seeds from the residue in the soil or create even more dominant, stronger weeds."

Trying to out-compete weeds and grass may be difficult, but it can be worth it. One of the benefits of pollinator species is that they grow horizontally and will eventually suppress the weeds, as well as having a really extensive root system that helps with soil stabilization. "The pollinator habitat has very long root systems, which help immensely with preventing erosion," says Emerson.

Again, Emerson says it does take a few years for the pollinating species to become the dominant species and to compete with the pre-existing weeds and grasses. During those early years, the habitat needs a great deal of attention.

"I'm not going to lie," says Emerson. "For the first year or two, the site looks pretty ugly because we have to decrease the number of times we're mowing in order to let the pollinator habitat seed and grow. So because we can't mow and because our pollinator habitat is still establishing and the grasses and the weeds continue to grow, it can be pretty ugly for a few years."

All this work isn't done solely by Pine Gate. Luckily, there are organizations and landowners happy to lend a hand.

"We coordinate with a North Carolina government organization, along with the North Carolina branch of the Nature Conservancy, to help us identify sites that might be more worth our while," says Emerson.

And many landowners are willing to coordinate and assist.

"We have some projects where the landowners have farming operations and they're interested in having an apiary on site, or grazing with their own sheep at the facility," says Emerson. "So anytime the landowner is interested and comes to us and we can be partners-further than just developing the solar site with them and leasing the land from them-it makes for a really wonderful project because we have additional local partnerships in that area."

Emerson beams when talking about the future. "It's so exciting. Our development team is talking with some really large companies throughout the country. And I'm hopeful. I am meeting many new landowners who hear about SolarCulture from our website and are requesting this on their sites. It's really exciting to see other third parties interested in it.

"And I'm proud of the excitement that people have around this. It makes me hopeful that this is the future of solar development. And I'm proud of what we've learned, and how much we've learned in the past three years of doing this. Again, we don't have the perfect solution. But I've had employees within Pine Gate reach out to me and say, 'I saw about SolarCulture on Pine Gate's website when I was applying to this job. And that's one of the reasons I wanted to join this company—that Pine Gate's going above and beyond what's required to take on additional environmental initiatives.'

"It's just really encouraging to see that people care and understand the value of planning pollinator habitat at solar facilities," says Emerson. "Again, we have all this land under our control, and it's such a great opportunity to do something really meaningful with it."

 


Q3 2021