Can Solar Plants Make Good Bird Habitat?

A proposed state law could turn Minnesota's solar gardens into actual gardens for native birds and pollinators.

Update: On May 30, 2016, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signed the solar-site management bill into law.

Solar power is poised to take off in Minnesota. And in the process, it might just give a little boost to birds.

Back in 2013, Minnesota set a statewide goal of generating 10 percent of its energy from solar by 2030. That same year, a different law gave a leg up to community solar “gardens”—facilities where groups and residents can subscribe to solar power to offset their own electricity use. Altogether, photovoltaic (PV) cells are expected to go up on some 4,500 acres of former farmland in the state by the end of this year.

Now, a bill has been penned to encourage the planting of native grasses and wildflowers in and around new solar PV facilities. That way the projects not only provide clean energy, but also support pollinators like hummingbirds, bees, and monarch butterflies. (Many pollinators have declined in recent years from habitat loss, pesticides, pathogens, and other factors.) The extra habitat would also help grassland birds that feed on insects, such as Eastern Meadowlarks and Grasshopper Sparrows, both of which are imperiled in the state.

And in case you're wondering, PV panels aren't the kind of solar power source that causes birds to burst into flames (though they don't have the most perfect record either). Unlike concentrating solar power, they don’t use mirrors to focus the sun’s rays to spin a turbine.

Typically solar companies cover their properties with gravel, concrete, or turf grass, says Audubon Minnesota communications manager Ashley Peters; converting that land into native vegetation will boost local biodiversity. Though the new plans will only help to recover a fraction of lost habitat, it’s a step in the right direction, proponents say: If the approach is used on the pending 4,500 acres, it would represent the equivalent of more than 2 million 6’ x 12’ native-plant gardens.

The bill has finished working its way through committees in the state legislature and hasn’t drawn any opponents so far. Once it passes next month, it will codify a set of standards that defines pollinator-friendly habitat, developed and overseen by the state's Department of Natural Resources and Board of Water and Soil Resources. The bill will also require participating companies to make their planting plans available to the public. This would ensure that they're delivering on their habitat claims, and gives them another way to promote the environmental benefits, says Rob Davis, director of the Media & Innovation Lab at Fresh Energy. The organization, which is the primary force behind the bill, designs market-based policies that will ease and encourage a transition to clean energy.

The proposed law also provides common ground for agribusiness and environmentalists, who in the past have sparred over issues such as water quality and conversion of habitat into farmland, says Kimberly Scott, Audubon Minnesota’s policy and legislative liaison. The program would, however, be strictly voluntary. “I’m not sure there’s the political appetite for [a requirement] in Minnesota,” says Scott.

Still, Peters notes that passing a bill that promotes friendlier solar plants would allow more companies to catch wind of the approach. And Fresh Energy’s Davis points out that municipal governments can require pollinator habitat as part of a permit for projects below a certain size.

Several solar companies have already pledged to plant native habitat at their Minnesota facilities. And farming organizations have also aligned in support: “It’s an easy and logical way to add [pollinator] habitat that is so critically needed, and add that habitat around solar panels, which are also contributing to a healthier planet," Minnesota Corn Growers Association executive director Adam Birr wrote in an email.