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Designing solar farms for synergistic commercial and conservation outcomes

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Competition among land uses is making it increasingly difficult to set aside adequate space for wildlife and nature conservation, so it is imperative that opportunities that simultaneously achieve commercial and conservation outcomes be identified and seized. Such opportunities exist in the renewable energy industry. It is widely recognized that renewable energy generation benefits the ecosphere through reduced carbon emissions, but currently, further opportunities for realising direct and indirect conservation benefits through the design of solar farms are less well known. Among other opportunities, solar farm designs that deliver environmental credits through carbon sequestration and biodiversity improvements can deliver higher financial returns. Other opportunities to improve local hydrology, pollination, and pest-control services could be available depending on site-specific characteristics where solar farms are built, and the other land use practices that exist, or are possible, in the immediate vicinity. Here, we explore opportunities among renewable energy generation, agriculture, and conservation, through the co-location and innovative design of PV solar energy farms on grazing and croplands. These forms of land sharing can achieve higher land-equivalent ratios (LERs), a quantitative metric of the reduction in land use. We identify opportunities whereby solar farms can be designed to improve biodiversity, land condition, and conservation outcomes, while maintaining or increasing commercial returns. Much work remains, however, to understand the suite of opportunities available for achieving simultaneously the best commercial and conservation outcomes through solar farm designs in agricultural landscapes.
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Solar Energy 228 (2021) 586–593
0038-092X/© 2021 International Solar Energy Society. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Designing solar farms for synergistic commercial and
conservation outcomes
Eric J. Nordberg
a
,
*
, M. Julian Caley
a
,
b
, Lin Schwarzkopf
a
a
College of Science and Engineering, James Cook University, Townsville, QLD, Australia
b
ARC Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers and School of Mathematical Sciences, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, QLD 4000,
Australia
ARTICLE INFO
Keywords:
Agrivoltaic systems
Biodiversity
Land sharing
Regenerative agriculture
Solar farm
Triple bottom line
ABSTRACT
Competition among land uses is making it increasingly difcult to set aside adequate space for wildlife and
nature conservation, so it is imperative that opportunities that simultaneously achieve commercial and con-
servation outcomes be identied and seized. Such opportunities exist in the renewable energy industry. It is
widely recognized that renewable energy generation benets the ecosphere through reduced carbon emissions,
but currently, further opportunities for realising direct and indirect conservation benets through the design of
solar farms are less well known. Among other opportunities, solar farm designs that deliver environmental
credits through carbon sequestration and biodiversity improvements can deliver higher nancial returns. Other
opportunities to improve local hydrology, pollination, and pest-control services could be available depending on
site-specic characteristics where solar farms are built, and the other land use practices that exist, or are possible,
in the immediate vicinity. Here, we explore opportunities among renewable energy generation, agriculture, and
conservation, through the co-location and innovative design of PV solar energy farms on grazing and croplands.
These forms of land sharing can achieve higher land-equivalent ratios (LERs), a quantitative metric of the
reduction in land use. We identify opportunities whereby solar farms can be designed to improve biodiversity,
land condition, and conservation outcomes, while maintaining or increasing commercial returns. Much work
remains, however, to understand the suite of opportunities available for achieving simultaneously the best
commercial and conservation outcomes through solar farm designs in agricultural landscapes.
1. Introduction
Human population growth continues to exert increasing pressure on
the land resources upon which we rely for diverse ecosystem services.
Setting aside natural areas for wildlife and nature conservation, land
sparing (Box 1; Fischer et al. 2008), has an important role in maintaining
natural resources and the services they provide.
Given the often large and widely distributed areas required to
conserve biodiversity, and the necessity of ensuring that such areas are
properly managed and protection is enforced (Phalan et al., 2011), re-
sources available for nature conservation are seldom sufcient. Conse-
quently, approaches other than land sparing, to conserve biodiversity
have gained more attention in recent years, especially in urban land-
scapes (Ives et al., 2016; Wolch et al., 2014). Urban green spaces, public
parks and gardens, and green roofs and walls support increased biodi-
versity in patches across anthropogenic landscapes (Goddard et al.,
2010). Further, many of these urban green spaces are multi-functional,
supporting biodiversity, food production (e.g., public gardens and green
roofs), and recreation (e.g., parks, golf courses). Such spaces can also
provide additional benets of improved air quality (Nowak et al., 2006),
better physical and mental health (Ward Thompson et al., 2012; Wolch
et al., 2014), and reduced heat-island effects (Tsilini et al., 2015). By
leveraging these effects, urban designs can contribute to the achieve-
ment of the United NationsSustainability and Development Goals
(United Nations, 2015). Beyond urban limits, the emergence of regen-
erative agriculture is another example of attempts to simultaneously
achieve nancial and conservation benets. In such landscapes, the
construction of solar farms presents an additional opportunity to co-
design facilities that focus on achieving better commercial returns for
agriculture and renewable energy businesses, while improving conser-
vation outcomes. Here we examine the inuence of spatial pairing of
agricultural and solar assets, agrivoltaic systems (Dinesh and Pearce,
* Corresponding author at: School of Environmental and Rural Science, University of New England, Armidale, NSW, Australia.
E-mail address: eric.nordberg@une.edu.au (E.J. Nordberg).
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Solar Energy
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/solener
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.solener.2021.09.090
Received 3 February 2021; Received in revised form 29 August 2021; Accepted 30 September 2021
Solar Energy 228 (2021) 586–593
587
2016; Dupraz et al., 2011a), on the achievement of simultaneous ben-
ets across agriculture, industry, and conservation (Fig. 1; Semeraro
et al. 2018).
2. Potential commercial and environmental returns from
agrivoltaic systems
The opportunities presented by designing land sharing schemes that
incorporate renewable energy production, agriculture, and nature con-
servation are just starting to be understood and, in a very limited
number of cases, realised (Dupraz et al., 2011a; Hernandez et al., 2015;
Kiesecker et al., 2011; Semeraro et al., 2018). Such opportunities should
be vast given the very considerable land areas globally being committed
to renewable energy generation (REN21, 2019; Trainor et al., 2016) and
the extensive application of land to agriculture (e.g. 48.6 million km
2
[37.4% of global land area]; World Bank Group 2016). Indeed, the co-
location of photovoltaic (PV) solar facilities within agricultural land-
scapes can increase productivity of crops under solar panels (Dupraz
et al., 2011b; Marrou et al., 2013c), increase soil carbon, and reduce
water evaporation (Armstrong et al., 2014; Hassanpour Adeh et al.,
2018; Marrou et al., 2013a).
Achieving better commercial and environmental outcomes from
solar farms will ultimately depend on the design of hybrid land-use
systems that capitalize on the opportunities presented at individual lo-
cations. These designs, in turn, will need to be underpinned by a detailed
understanding of local conditions and opportunities. In general, though,
solar farms constructed on degraded land should enable vegetation and
soil carbon to regenerate, and at least some local biodiversity to re-
establish in areas from which it had previously been lost (Montag
et al., 2016; Parker and McQueen, 2013). Accordingly, gains at multiple
levels should be achievable, beyond that which might be achieved by
solar power installation designs that do not explicitly consider such
design options. For example, combining cropping or other agricultural
production with solar farms, on the same land, reduces the space
required for both uses, if sited separately. By using degraded landscapes
(e.g., low productivity croplands, or nutrient-poor, overgrazed livestock
properties) for the installation of solar farms, native communities of
plant and animal species may be enhanced, and if coupled with regen-
erative agriculture, much greater synergies might be achieved.
While achieving coupled economic and environmental outcomes in
agrivoltaic systems is laudable, our current understanding of the many
interacting factors that would affect solar electricity production and the
simultaneous generation of positive environmental and biodiversity
outcomes is extremely limited. The generation of additional knowledge
of these opportunities is urgent, especially in light of the current and
rapidly increasing extent of solar farms. Without such understanding,
our ability to limit the impacts of solar farms, much less realise oppor-
tunities associated with optimal hybrid designs, is likely to be missed.
Our purpose here, therefore, is to explore opportunities that might exist
for designing agrivoltaic systems and determine what information is
required to make robust choices among designs.
3. Understanding the potential benets and limitations of
agrivoltaic systems
3.1. PV solar farm performance
Solar farms require ongoing maintenance. This maintenance can
include keeping the solar panels free of debris (e.g., dust, leaves, bird
droppings), which can reduce panel efciency by up to 7% over
extended periods without rain or panel cleaning (Goossens and Van
Kerschaever, 1999; Jaszczur et al., 2019; Mejia et al., 2014). Therefore,
panels need cleaning periodically to maintain high levels of energy
production (Fig. 2a; Mani and Pillai 2010; Lovich and Ennen 2011).
Dust accumulation on panels is a major issue for solar farms in arid
areas, especially those without vegetation or ground cover to trap dust
or reduce local wind speeds. Arid lands also tend to be areas with large
solar resources, suggesting that maintenance will be an important
consideration for solar farms in many locations. Dust accumulation can
be reduced by adding vegetation to solar farms (Li et al., 2007; Munson
et al., 2011). In addition, large-scale PV solar farms increase local
ambient temperatures and act as heat-islands (Armstrong et al., 2016;
Barron-Gafford et al., 2016; Edalat, 2017; Zhang and Xu, 2020) which
can reduce the efciency and performance of solar panels (Fesharaki
et al., 2011; Kande et al., 2016; Popovici et al., 2016) and have negative
impacts on plants and wildlife (Yow, 2007). Vegetation cover around
and under solar panels can reduce this heat-island effect and help
maintain solar panel efciency (Kande et al., 2016; Tsilini et al., 2015).
For example, vegetative ground cover can reduce degradation of solar
panel backsheets (the protective layer on the backside of the solar
panel). Backsheets protect the internal electrical components from
weathering and act as insolation for the solar panel (Gambogi et al.,
2013; Oreski and Wallner, 2005; Voronko et al., 2015). Like many
polymetric materials, backsheets are subject to degradation through
environmental stressors, such as temperature, humidity, and ultraviolet
light (Lin et al., 2016; Oreski and Wallner, 2005). Grass and vegetative
cover under solar panels can reduce the damaging effects of UV light on
the backsheets and slow their degradation (Fairbrother et al., 2018).
Consequently, incorporating vegetation buffers between sets of solar
panels or around the installations perimeter, or both, may produce
multiple benets, including reduced dust accumulation, reduced oper-
ating temperatures of PV panels, and provide habitat for pollinators and
other wildlife (Semeraro et al., 2018).
In contrast to the advantages of incorporating vegetation in solar
farm designs, shading from vegetation will reduce energy output from
PV panels. Therefore, solar panels need to remain un-shaded as much as
Box 1
Glossary of terms.
Term. Denition. Ref.
Agrivoltaic system. Co-located agriculture; (crops or livestock) and energy production on the same
land area.
Dupraz et al. 2011a; Dinesh and
Pearce 2016.
Land equivalent
ratio.
The relative land area required by monocultures to produce the same yields as
intercropping
1.
Mead and Willey 1980.
Regenerative
agriculture.
Farming practices that rehabilitate agricultural land (e.g. soil biodiversity,
carbon, health, and organic matter) to enhance production.
Rodale Institute 2014.
Land sharing. Biodiversity conservation and food production occurring on the same land (aka
wildlife-friendly farming)
Green et al. 2005; Fischer et al.
2008; Phalan et al. 2011.
Land sparing. Land designated for conservation use separate for all other uses. Green et al. 2005; Fischer et al.
2008; Phalan et al. 2011.
E.J. Nordberg et al.
Solar Energy 228 (2021) 586–593
588
possible to retain efcient energy production, which often requires
vegetation management (Fig. 2b). Tall grasses require periodic mowing,
spraying with herbicides, or grazing by livestock. Both periodic mowing
and chemical suppression require staff and equipment whose costs
reduce the nancial returns of solar farms (Fig. 2b, e). Chemical sup-
pression also comes with added negative effects of chemicals leaching
into the environment and potential costs of preventing and mitigating
their effects (Abbasi and Abbasi, 2000; Montag et al., 2016) and po-
tential biodiversity impacts in the vicinity (e.g., Roundup; Relyea
2005). In contrast, using livestock to manage vegetation can provide
mutual benets to solar farm owners via vegetation management and
agricultural production through forage for livestock (Montag et al.,
2016; Sinha et al., 2018). The utility of such approaches with respect to
maximising nancial returns will depend on how the PV panels are
Fig. 1. A hypothetical agrivoltaic system in Australia. Solar panels are co-located within croplands and on existing grazing land.
Fig. 2. Conceptual model of components and in-
teractions that inuence land condition in agri-
voltaic systems. Five major components are
summarized through their interactions (represented
by a f and described in the text) by: Biodiversity
(wildlife habitat, species diversity, refugia and
cover, pollinator and predators, and ecosystem ser-
vices); Soil and Water (run-off, erosion, soil mois-
ture, soil compaction, dust accumulation, nutrients,
fertilizers); Vegetation (ground cover, vegetation
complexity, weeds, food production); Maintenance
(clearing, infrastructure, mowing, herbicide use,
pesticide use, livestock health, cultivation and har-
vest); Financial returns (carbon credits, electricity
production, jobs, site maintenance, pest control,
prot through livestock/crop yields, supplemental
feeding for livestock).
E.J. Nordberg et al.
Solar Energy 228 (2021) 586–593
589
mounted, and the type of livestock used for vegetation management. For
instance, the combination of low panels and large or climbing livestock
may lead to solar panel damage. Therefore, panel design, vegetation
choices, and stocking approaches all need to be integral to the design of
agrivoltaic systems. Through such design considerations, solar farms
have the potential to increase their nancial returns by using grazing
livestock for vegetation management to suppress vegetation from over-
shading solar panels. Further, in some systems, native herbivores could
be encouraged to occupy and forage within solar facilities, (e.g., kan-
garoos or wallabies in Australia, pronghorn antelope in the USA),
providing biodiversity benets, as well as low-cost vegetation manage-
ment that may also, in some cases, provide additional income through
biodiversity offsets (Fig. 2c, d).
3.2. Agriculture and crops
Solar farms can occupy large areas of land, and thereby compete with
other agricultural uses, such as grazing and croplands. But, agrivoltaic
systems that couple PV power generation with shade-tolerant crops can
increase returns up to 30% in some cases, compared to producing energy
and crops separately (Dinesh and Pearce, 2016). Further, agrivoltaic
systems can be highly productive and increase overall land productivity
by 6070% (Dupraz et al., 2011a) as quantied by land-equivalent ratios
(LERs, Box 1; Mead and Willey 1980). Agrivoltaic systems have achieved
LER =1.7, (i.e., a 100 ha. agrivoltaic farm produces as much energy and
crop yields as two separate farms totalling 170 ha.; Dupraz et al. 2011a).
While not all crops are suitable for agrivoltaic systems, lettuce, sweet
potato, alfalfa, and plants with high photosynthetic rates and low root
density or high shade tolerance can grow well in association with solar
farms (Dinesh and Pearce, 2016; Dupraz et al., 2011b; Ezzaeri et al.,
2018; Marrou et al., 2013c; Seidlova et al., 2009; Valle et al., 2017). In
these hybrid systems, shading from solar panels helps maintain soil
moisture and water retention in under-panel vegetation and crops
(Hassanpour Adeh et al., 2018). For example, increased water retention
led to an increase in fresh harvest weight of cucumbers and lettuce
grown under solar panels (Marrou et al., 2013a). Given the diversity of
potential crops and their varying requirements (e.g., photosynthetic,
soil, water, etc.), not all crop species will be suitable in agrivoltaic sys-
tems. Onions grown under solar panels in Wales produced reduced fresh
and dry matter harvest weights compared to non-solar farm yields
(Kadowaki et al., 2012). These effects were also seasonally dependent;
shade from solar panels was more detrimental in winter than summer
(Dupraz et al., 2011b). Clearly, given the diversity of local environ-
mental conditions among sites, and trait diversity among crop plants,
experimentation will be required to learn which combinations work best
for each region and set of conditions.
3.3. Biodiversity
In addition to producing energy and agricultural products, agri-
voltaic facilities can benet biodiversity. PV solar farms can act as
articial habitat islands by providing shelter that may otherwise have
been diminished or destroyed in degraded environments (Sinha et al.,
2018). Similar to articial reefs in lakes and oceans (Baine, 2001;
Bohnsack and Sutherland, 1985; Creque et al., 2006; Folpp et al., 2020),
solar farms add structural complexity and increased heterogeneity to
microhabitats at multiple levels. Solar panels add physical structure to
the environment that provides microhabitats, adding shelter and refugia
for wildlife (Sinha et al., 2018). Multiple studies in Europe have shown
that solar farms support more biodiversity (bumblebees, butteries, and
plant species) than control sites (arable elds; Parker and McQueen
2013; Montag et al. 2016). The increased structural complexity provided
by solar panels provide nesting and perch sites for many birds (Beatty
et al., 2017; DeVault et al., 2014; Peschel, 2010) including ground
nesting birds, which also likely benet from added protection from
aerial predators. Solar farm boundary fences may also provide
additional protection for prey species residing within solar farms, as
some terrestrial predators may be deterred by facility boundary fences
(Sinha et al., 2018).
During the construction phase of PV solar projects, wildlife is often
displaced (Hernandez et al., 2014; Lovich and Ennen, 2011; Turney and
Fthenakis, 2011), but if managed well, wildlife will repopulate sites
following construction (Peschel, 2010). While there are reports of
wildlife mortality at solar installations (i.e., bird collisions; Walston
et al. 2016; Visser et al. 2019; feather damage and insect incineration
from concentrated solar-thermal (CST) solar facilities (McCrary et al.
1984; Kagan et al. 2014; ecological traps; Horv´
ath et al. 2010; Kagan
et al. 2014), the mortality associated with PV solar farms is thought to be
much less than that of traditional power facilities (Walston et al., 2016).
Solar panels can also reduce the mean ground temperatures below
them, and increase local thermal heterogeneity. Similarly, mean mois-
ture and moisture heterogeneity can increase where solar panels are
installed. These local effects are generated by the sun-shade mosaics
caused by panels, and benet many plant and animal species (Beatty
et al., 2017; Hassanpour Adeh et al., 2018). Vegetation that grows under
and around solar panels produces shelter, nesting material, and forage
for many species (Montag et al. 2016; Beatty et al. 2017; Fig. 2e). In
addition, shading by solar panels can cool surface temperatures and
increase soil moisture compared to open landscapes (Hassanpour Adeh
et al., 2018; Marrou et al., 2013b). Solar farms that host more vegetation
than would otherwise be there will also provide habitat for wildlife to
recolonize. Sites with greater botanical diversity also support greater
invertebrate diversity, including pollinators that provide important
ecosystem services (Montag et al., 2016; Semeraro et al., 2018; Van-
bergen et al., 2013; Walston et al., 2018). Wildlife and vegetation on
solar farms interact positively; establishing diverse vegetation commu-
nities will encourage biodiversity including pollinators and predators,
which, in turn, will promote more botanical diversity. Improving land
condition on solar farms by establishing vegetative cover, including
native grasses, shrubs, and owering plants, improves soil health
through increased soil carbon, water retention and inltration, and
reduced surface run-off and consequent erosion (Bartley et al., 2014; Li
et al., 2007). Hydrodynamics, whereby water penetration into the soil is
greater because the presence of plants can help recharge water tables,
and reduce evaporative water losses (Yapp et al., 2010).
Although the design of solar farms can promote better environmental
outcomes, some negative effects of PV installations on ecological com-
munities have been identied. Most investigations of these negative
effects have focused on volant fauna. Birds and bats can be injured or
killed if they collide with solar panels and related infrastructure (Visser
et al., 2019; Walston et al., 2016). Because solar panels reect horizontal
polarized light, similar to water bodies, they can also attract ying
aquatic insects in search of suitable egg-laying locations (Horv´
ath et al.,
2010). This ‘lake-effect could also cause birds to collide with solar
panels, however, this effect has not been thoroughly investigated, and
there are few studies to support or refute this ‘lake-effectin birds
(Kagan et al., 2014; Visser et al., 2019). While solar farms can negatively
impact wildlife, avian mortality due to utility-scale solar facilities are
considerably lower than the mortality associated with other anthropo-
genic causes, including building collisions, road mortality, and habitat
loss associated with fossil fuel development (Walston et al., 2016).
Where such potential concerns are realised, there will be opportunities
to mitigate these, through strategic site planning and design.
3.4. Design and placement of solar farms
The installation of solar farms can disturb landscapes through large-
scale clearing and site preparation. The construction of any solar farm
will cause some level of disturbance to natural habitats. The net benets
of building a new farm will depend on at least two factors: the original
quality of the land prior to its current use, and its current state. For
example, high-quality habitats that have been degraded in recent years
E.J. Nordberg et al.
Solar Energy 228 (2021) 586–593
590
through intense cropping, overgrazing, or other damaging agricultural
or industrial practices have the most to gain from regenerative ap-
proaches available to agrivoltaic systems. Regenerative agriculture
coupled with PV solar capacity can help improve the economic prot-
ability, environmental, and ecological values of a site. Degraded land-
scapes of historical high-quality that are selected for regenerative
agrivoltaic sites have the potential to experience the lowest relative
degradation and benet most over the long term, given their current
poor land condition. Of course, many agricultural properties are well
managed and not degraded. In these cases, landowners may be able to
improve low productivity areas (perhaps with poor soil nutrients, rocky
or undulating land, etc.) through land sparing patches or co-planting
alongside solar panels.
Generally, the design and potential outcomes from agrivoltaic in-
stallations will be site specic. For example, landscapes that support
burrowing species, such as desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii) or bur-
rowing owls (Athene cunicularia), may be adversely affected if burrows
are collapsed by machinery during solar farm construction (Gibson
et al., 2017; Lovich and Ennen, 2011). Ideally, such negative impacts
could be minimised by using existing low-quality habitats and or low
productivity agricultural areas or improving solar farm design and
construction.
Many factors determine the suitability of sites for PV solar farms,
including the quality of the solar resource (Hernandez et al., 2014;
Lovich and Ennen, 2011; Moore-OLeary et al., 2017), available grid
connections, costs of construction, and various environmental consid-
erations. These considerations are even greater for agrivoltaic systems.
For example, solar facilities may require perimeter fences for security,
but fences can block wildlife movement into or across solar farms. Site
designs can mitigate these negative effects on wildlife to some extent
through the application of wildlife-friendly fencing, wildlife gates, or
travel corridors (Cypher et al., 2019). Which mitigants are most effective
will depend on the wildlife communities in the local area. Some wildlife
species may be benecial to solar farms. For example, native herbivores
(e.g., rabbits, kangaroos) may contribute to grass and vegetation sup-
pression. Perimeter fences around PV installations may also block
migratory routes or access to streams or ephemeral wetlands located
within solar farms. Site managers may also require access to water for
periodic cleaning of solar panels to reduce dust accumulation, especially
in arid landscapes, or where birds are plentiful, and solar panel ef-
ciency is reduced by fouling (Jaszczur et al., 2019; Lovich and Ennen,
2011; Mani and Pillai, 2010). Local water resources used for panel
cleaning are at least returned to the local environment, where it may be
used by plants and animals. Where water is very limited, its use by solar
farms may impact other environmental uses, such as access to free water
by wildlife (Cameron et al., 2012; Grippo et al., 2014).
4. Research priorities and recommendations
Typically, solar farms are designed and managed only to produce
renewable electricity. Therefore, it is reasonable that solar farm de-
velopers target locations with the highest quality solar resources that
can easily be connected to electricity grids or local loads. There are,
however, greater nancial returns possible by coupling solar farm
returns with agricultural production and environmental restoration and
conservation. Agricultural markets are well developed and understood,
and can easily be modelled in combination with power production to
create agrivoltic designs that generate greater returns. Environmental
markets for carbon and biodiversity credits and natural capital are much
less well known, and are changing rapidly. Currently, carbon credits,
perhaps the best known of these markets, vary by more than an order of
magnitude in price, and it is reasonable to assume the value of these
credits will increase substantially as more carbon reduction targets are
legislated, and the demand from the voluntary market continues to
expand. Moreover, the opportunity for land holders to access debt and
equity to support their businesses by leveraging their natural capital is
only just starting to emerge as a nancial instrument. Clearly, much
more research will be required to understand and capture these
emerging market opportunities.
These additional returns can be realised not just by accessing these
additional revenue streams, but also realising available synergies among
different land uses in close proximity. For example, appropriate ground
cover under, and in the vicinity of, solar panels could lower running
costs for solar facilities, while producing carbon and other environ-
mental credits, such as access to run-off mediation funds, while
providing pollination and pest control services to adjacent horticultural
production (Delaney et al., 2020; Li and Waller, 2015). Consequently,
rather than simply focusing only on existing priorities, such as opti-
mizing the design, placement, and maintenance of solar facilities
(Peschel, 2010; Sinha et al., 2018), considerable opportunities exist to
consider how landscapes can be improved, rehabilitated, or both,
through the production of multiple products from a mosaic of land uses
in more sustainable ways. These opportunities exist in a variety of
combinations that could include energy production, shade-tolerant
crops, feed for livestock, and wildlife refuge, among others.
While the potential to apply such design principles for simultaneous
and improved conservation, sustainability, and commercial returns
clearly exist, understanding how to design for such synergistic outcomes
is in its infancy. Better understanding of these opportunities will arise
from research directed to address specic questions regarding how to
determine the most appropriate mix of scales and patterns of deploy-
ment of various land uses. The opportunities for co-design will be
complex and location-specic, depending on a combination of ambient
environmental conditions, the agricultural land uses possible and
practiced at that location, the regulatory frameworks under which such
a facility will operate in terms of the environmental costs and credits
available, and the types of technology deployed. Decision support tools
will also need to be developed to optimize these choices in different
circumstances. We suggest that future solar projects should initially
explore multiple use of their sites to achieve better environmental and
commercial outcomes. In its simplest form, an agrivoltaic system might
support both energy production and under-panel crop production. Such
a design would reduce the land required for both uses (i.e. increase the
LER) while supporting at least some biodiversity. Alternatively, an
agrivoltaic system that uses livestock for vegetation management could
reduce labour costs for staff to mow or spray vegetation, support local
graziers via leasing solar farmland to feed stock, and will incidentally
provide habitat for plant and animal diversity. These co-benets may be
further increased by incorporating inter-panel vegetation buffers, tree
and shrub buffers around solar facilities, especially in mosaics of other
land use systems. As our knowledge of the opportunities in this space
increase, agrivoltaic solar facilities have the potential to contribute to
the rehabilitation, and possibly improvement, of biodiversity on
degraded landscapes of poor ecological and economic value and in-
crease the economic returns to solar farms and agriculture while
improving land condition and conservation outcomes.
Rather than constructing new facilities on undisturbed native vege-
tation, or green-eld sites, even areas of low biodiversity value, de-
velopers could focus instead on reusing degraded landscapes for solar
farm development (Cameron et al., 2012; Milbrandt et al., 2014).
Degraded landscapes, overgrazed land, low productivity croplands, and
sites disturbed by anthropogenic practices, are plentiful, and many
could potentially be repurposed. These degraded landscapes are gener-
ally under-used, have poor yield potential, are difcult to cultivate, or
have low economic value that make them comparatively inexpensive to
acquire. However, some regions may be constrained by access and
proximity to electricity grid connections and access roads for construc-
tion. Alternatively, site selection for solar energy projects may raise local
real-estate prices with the promise of better access to grid power in the
vicinity solar farms installations, thereby increasing property values, or
commercial development potential.
The reuse of degraded or lower quality agricultural land, already
E.J. Nordberg et al.
Solar Energy 228 (2021) 586–593
591
modied from its original state, provides an opportunity to rehabilitate
or improve land in support of better agrivoltaic system revenues and
improved biodiversity (Hernandez et al., 2016; Kiesecker et al., 2011).
Such modication of existing landscapes into agricultural, environ-
mental, and energy generating mosaics will undoubtably produce trade-
offs whereby one use of the space is compromised in favour of another.
Such trade-offs should be reduced to some extent through careful design
and management that minimizes negative effects and enhances the
positive ones (Neilly et al., 2018).
PV solar farm facilities have generally conformed to standard de-
signs, with panels situated in rows, generally mounted 13 m off the
ground, depending on the racking and mounting system used. Other
designs for solar panel deployment could mitigate, to some extent, the
ongoing need for vegetation management (Fig. 2b,f), or allow grazing
livestock to access vegetation under panels (Guerin, 2017). Rather than
solar panels sitting close to the ground, if panels were situated at least 2
m above the ground at their lowest point, many grasses and shrubs
would not grow tall enough to block the panels from sunlight. Further,
this may allow additional vegetation types to be incorporated into solar
facilities (e.g. shrubs and low woody vegetation) which could provide
more habitat structural complexity, leading to increased biodiversity
(Neilly et al., 2018; Nordberg and Schwarzkopf, 2019). Yet, to our
knowledge, no solar facilities have experimented with the structural
design of solar panels in this manner. Clearly, the additional costs of
materials to place solar panels further above ground on solar farms
would need to be offset by savings on vegetation management (mowing,
spraying, etc.), dust control, and income from available environmental
credits, and other revenue streams from producing food or bre on the
same sites. Conversely, on-ground solar arrays are now available that
reduce the costs of deployment while minimizing ground disturbance.
These low-prole placements may provide better habitat for some kinds
of biodiversity, but may lead to increased panel fouling, or may interact
with other processes in ways we do not yet understand. Irrespective of
the designs deployed, such costs and benets will need to be considered
to optimise system performance. Again, independent of the solar tech-
nology deployed, system designs and solar panel arrangements could be
improved by adding vegetation buffers, shrub and tree rows, and other
patchy vegetation clusters to increase habitat and connectivity for
wildlife, production of livestock and crops, and reduce run-off and
erosion. What is certain is that leaving intact or restoring vegetation
clusters and corridors can increase biodiversity and have positive im-
pacts on species richness and diversity around agricultural landscapes
(Burel, 1996; Nordberg et al., 2021).
5. Summary and future directions
Increasing generation of renewable energy has the potential to
greatly reduce carbon emissions and diminish reliance on fossil fuels,
but little is yet known about the effect of this expanding industry on the
landscapes on which generation facilities are built, or the biodiversity
associated with these sites and the ecosystem services they provide. We
are similarly ignorant of how to minimize these impacts, or access the
potential for better environmental and commercial returns, that could
be realised through better design of solar facilities, in association with
other land uses such as agriculture or conservation. It is clear, however,
that the potential exists for increased net returns from co-locating power
generation, agricultural production, and land restoration and conser-
vation. To understand the size of this potential opportunity, studies
quantifying the direct and indirect effects of solar farms on biodiversity
and agricultural production, and vice versa, are needed. There is ur-
gency in this need for greater understanding, especially given the cur-
rent rapid growth of solar farm construction. As our knowledge of how
to access these opportunities expands, the placement of new solar farms
should be carefully considered to minimize negative effects on ecolog-
ical communities, as should be the co-location of new facilities within
existing disturbed agricultural landscapes. Designing mosaics of land
uses that provide multiple economic benets to multiple industries will
reduce the negative effects of multiple land uses, and provide enhanced
revenue for multiple industries, both through reduced maintenance
costs and increased production. By designing future solar farms in
partnerships with solar farm developers, agriculturalists, economists,
and conservation ecologists, we can achieve more sustainable and
regenerative outcomes for the environmental, agricultural, and power
generation. Doing so will contribute to achieving many of the United
Nations Sustainability and Development Goals (United Nations, 2015).
Declaration of Competing Interest
The authors declare that they have no known competing nancial
interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to inuence
the work reported in this paper.
Acknowledgements
This research did not receive any specic grant from funding
agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-prot sectors.
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