Pollinator-friendly solar energy gains ground in Virginia

by | Apr 23, 2023 | Environmental

Solar energy facilities designed to support bees, butterflies and birds are taking hold in Virginia through an innovative program to improve biodiversity.

The state’s voluntary Pollinator-Smart program, launched in 2019, encourages pollinator-friendly solar development with a scorecard and rating system.

Foxhound Solar, developed by Longroad Energy, recently earned certification for its proposed 83-megawatt solar installation on 600 acres in Halifax County. Foxhound plans to plant native grasses, such as Southeastern wildrye, and native Oxeye sunflower and other wildflowers in areas surrounding the solar arrays. It is the second solar facility to be certified Pollinator-Smart in the commonwealth.

“Longroad is proud that Foxhound Solar is the first large-scale solar project to be Virginia Pollinator-Smart certified,” said Deron Lawrence, senior director, Natural Resources, Longroad Energy. “Longroad is committed to enhancing biodiversity at projects where pollinator habitats can be planted. We applaud the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality for their leadership in creating a pollinator program that is readily achievable even at a large scale.”

The pollinator-friendly solar program, developed by DEQ and DCR, provides guidelines for designing, building and monitoring solar installations that provide habitat for native pollinators, lessen stormwater impacts and improve the visual appeal of the projects. The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources is also a Pollinator-Smart team member.

Among the key recommendations is to use native plant species, rather than non-native turf grass that requires frequent mowing.

“Planting species native to Virginia – whether at our state parks, on a solar energy facility, or in your backyard – helps to preserve the commonwealth’s special natural heritage and biodiversity,” said DCR Director Matthew Wells. “The benefits of Foxhound’s pollinator habit – both around the array and under the panels – will have a positive impact both on the project and the surrounding area. We commend Longroad Energy’s commitment to supporting biodiversity by being the first utility-scale solar project to achieve Virginia Pollinator-Smart certification.”

DEQ Director Mike Rolband said, “Pollinators are in decline throughout the U.S. and we depend upon effective pollination for many food crops. “Virginia has an opportunity here with the growing demand for solar energy to maximize the benefits of this landscape change to increase the amount of pollinator-friendly habitat statewide. We need to grab this opportunity now as this landscape transformation occurs.”

“DWR’s Wildlife Action Plan recognizes the importance of open space for wildlife,” said Becky Gwynn, Deputy Director of DWR. “In fact, Halifax County is recognized as a priority area to improve open space habitats to provide benefits for Species of Greatest Conservation Need including seven species of bumblebee, butterflies (monarch) and numerous birds (bobwhite quail, eastern towhee and field sparrow).  To realize habitat improvements for these species – while simultaneously addressing the commonwealth’s renewable energy goals – is a win-win,” she said.

In 2020, Cople Elementary School in Westmoreland County became the first facility designated as gold-certified, the highest designation.

Developer Sun Tribe installed solar panels about 3 feet off the ground with native plants such as black-eyed Susan, partridge-pea and blazing star within the open areas of the 4.62-acre site. The 660-kilowatt system has been providing 95% of the school’s energy to offset the school’s power bill and carbon footprint.

Following a second year of monitoring on the site, the solar facility recently succeeded in becoming recertified at the gold level. The school has also incorporated hands-on lessons about pollinators into its curriculum.

“It has really given our students a better appreciation for our environment,” said Leslie Steele, principal of Cople Elementary School. “We’re able to provide some unique learning experiences for our students because of the pollinators being right in our backyard.”

“We at Sun Tribe are proud to work in a state that not only leads in the deployment of solar energy, but also prioritizes environmental innovation that allows our wildlife to thrive,” said Devin Welch, Sun Tribe Solar CEO. “Thanks to the leadership at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Pollinator-Smart program is rewarding the type of development that takes a good thing and makes it even better — like Cople Elementary’s gold-certified, pollinator-friendly solar project. It’s now meeting nearly all the school’s energy needs in a way that’s better for the climate, for our air and for local wildlife.”

Virginia’s pollinator-friendly solar program has provided guidelines and standards that a growing number of local governments are choosing to embrace as they consider applications for solar developments in their communities.

The initiative is an example of agrivoltaics, or co-locating solar arrays and pollinator habitat or agricultural production, on the same land.

Dozens of Virginia’s 132 localities now require the use of either native or pollinator-friendly species. (Link to PDF report.)

For example, the City of Chesapeake requires solar developer applicants to achieve Pollinator-Smart certification under its solar energy policy.

“We’re encouraged to see a groundswell of interest in using native plants in recent years by individuals, localities and now a developer on a major solar project,” said Jason Bulluck, director of the Virginia Natural Heritage Program at DCR. “Along with supporting the native plant industry here, these efforts have spurred a new drive to jumpstart Virginia’s native seed industry in order to meet the current and future demands – not only for solar, but other development projects as well.”

For more information on Virginia’s Pollinator-Smart Program, visit: https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/pollinator-smart.

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