Using the space around the solar panels as sites for 48 hives, the Eagle Point solar farm is using its land to save pollinators and help local agriculture.
At a solar farm surrounded by orchards near Medford, Oregon, native flowers are beginning to bloom between the solar panels, and 48 beehives sit at the edge of the field. The solar farm, called Eagle Point, is now the largest “solar apiary”–a solar energy project designed to benefit pollinators–in the country.
“For me, it comes from a place of wanting to change the culture of solar and really taking into consideration more than just the panels,” says Julianne Wooten, environmental manager for Pine Gate Renewables, the North Carolina-based solar power company that developed the site.
In 2017, the company began working on a new project to keep land productive at its solar farms, reintroducing native plants, and, in some cases, working with farmers or ranchers to plant crops or graze animals around the panels. A nonprofit called Fresh Energy helped connect the company with a local beekeeper who happened to be looking for a new home for some of his hives. (This isn’t the only smart combination of clean energy and agriculture: a solar farm in Japan is growing mushrooms under the panels.)
For pollinators, sprawling solar plants can provide space for much-needed habitat. (By the spring of 2019, when the new native plants are more established, the Eagle Point solar farm will offer 41 acres of new habitat.) For nearby farms growing crops that rely on pollinators–at a time when thousands of wild pollinators are at risk of extinction, and beekeepers are still struggling to maintain their populations of honeybees–this type of project can also play a role in supporting the food supply.
For the owner of a solar farm, seeding fields with native flowers and grasses has a higher upfront cost than at a typical installation; Pine Gate also worked with experts in restoration to ensure that they were making changes that were ecologically sound. But roughly a third of the maintenance costs of a solar farm can come from managing vegetation. Depending on the location, grass growing under panels might need to be mowed eight times a year. Shifting to natural vegetation can reduce that to one or two times a year, and should save the company money over time.
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