Indiana’s largest solar park also home to sheep and pollinators, plus how solar farms can also be, well…farms. Meet Inspire, fostering USA low-impact solar development.
Indiana’s Largest Solar Park Also Home to Sheep & Pollinators, How Solar Farms Can Be…Farms, Fostering Low-Impact Solar Development
INDIANA’S LARGEST SOLAR PARK HOUSES SHEEP AND POLLINATORS, TOO!
Randolph County’s $242 million Riverstart Solar Park completed in 2022, is Indiana’s biggest. Thousands of photovoltaic panels covering 1,400 acres of rural land generate enough clean electricity to power 36,000 homes.
Massive solar farms like this can be a touchy subject with locals. So, in the lead-up to the project’s approval, county legislators ensured the developer would be a good neighbor, with measures to avoid glare from the panels and mandated setbacks from roads and highways. And then they took it one step further, requiring the planting of pollinator-friendly plants like wildflowers and clover, in addition to native grasses. It was the first such mandate in state history.
The requirement will ensure that Riverstart will benefit the very land it is situated on — a very different approach from the way solar farms have historically been conceived and built. Typically, U.S. solar projects are built on marginal lands or farmland, with panels mounted on ground covered with gravel or turf. It’s a farm in name only, an ecological dead zone, despite the clean energy benefits. But as the ordinance for Riverstart shows, this is changing, and solar farms are increasingly being seen as more than just a means to generate clean energy.
Why does Riverstart matter to us? Aside from its innovative approach to a large-scale solar farm project, and the CO2 it doesn’t emit, the project created approximately 700 full-time equivalent jobs during construction and 5 permanent jobs during the life of the project. Through the project’s lifecycle, millions of dollars will be spent within 50 miles of the solar park.
Also, Riverstart Solar Park saves more than 355 million gallons of water each year.
HOW SOLAR FARMS CAN ALSO BE, WELL…FARMS
It’s not just megaprojects like Riverstart that are embracing new solar farm designs that benefit the local environment. Dave Gahl, Senior Director of Northeast State Affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association, the national trade association for the U.S. solar industry, says growing native plants and pollinators on solar farms is a nationwide trend for “community solar projects”. These are smaller solar arrays (under five megawatts) typically built on leased farmland.
According to the website, “Reasons to be Cheerful,” The very act of taking plots of farmland out of production for the typical 20 to 30 year lifespan of a solar project rejuvenates top soil degraded by annual cropping and chemical applications.
Solar farms with plants can also become fodder for “solar grazers,” like at the Nexamp community solar project in Newfield, New York, where about 150 sheep are “deployed” to prevent plants from growing tall and interfering with the solar panels. Fencing keeps predators out, while the panels themselves shelter the sheep from sun and storms.
Solar companies have begun increasingly to enter into agreements with local farmers, allowing sheep herds to graze the vegetation around the solar panels. Farmer gets additional revenue stream. Plus such natural grazing also encourages grass regrowth, increases manure nutrients to the soil, and avoids the costs and pollution of mowing.
The U.S. Department of Energy is experimenting with “agrivoltaics” — raising solar panels higher off the ground to enable food crops to be grown in the shade underneath. In the summer heat of a place like Arizona, peppers and tomatoes can be shaded from the scorching sun by the panels, which then retain heat and boost the crops’ growth during the cooler evenings.
Why do solar farms as farms matter to us? Green tech actually helping repair the planet while providing food for animals and people? Win-win-win!
InSPIRE, FOSTERING LOW-IMPACT SOLAR DEVELOPMENT
America’s federal government recently got a clue. It realized that given the number of acres medium to large scale solar arrays require, given that such acreage is typically only owned by farmers, and given some of the enduring economic challenges farmers face, why not help them develop income leasing acreage to solar developers while still farming on the same ground?
How? Through the Low -Impact Solar Development initiative. Low-impact solar differs from conventional solar array development in several ways. With low-impact, Existing vegetation is left intact or is replaced with low-growing native vegetation species or crops. With conventional array, vegetation would have been stripped away and all roots cleared, too.
Similarly, conventional solar array prep strips away and stores topsoil offsite. With low-impact, existing topsoil is left in place to allow for the successful growth of native vegetation and to promote soil health post-decommissioning of the solar project. And the natural contours of land are worked into the design and configuration of the solar project, with minimal if any land grading required. In conventional, not only is land graded and leveled using heavy equipment, the further result is soil is compacted.
Low-impact doesn’t use concrete footers for vertical supports, doesn’t deploy herbicides and pesticides, or pollution-causing mowing, either. Low-impact supports vegetation, encourages pollinator species retention and development as well as native flora and fauna retention.
So why does this matter? Because the federal government has created a program and website to assist farmers in getting with the low-impact solar program. It’s called the Innovative Solar Practices Integrated with Rural Economies and Ecosystems program, aka InSPIRE. Check out the link in the deeper dive section of this story at the climate.org/episodes to find out more.
Looks like you CAN build a better mousetrap!