Can Low-Impact Solar Installations be the Key to Sustainable Food Production and Power Generation?


While solar panels have long been seen as a viable alternative to staying on the grid, a new development regarding the technology may well change the entire game when it comes to sun-charged renewable energy. An ongoing study seeks to discover the benefits that low-impact solar development may have with regard to food and water, as well as renewable energy.

Called the Innovative Site preparation and Impact Reductions on the Environment (InSPIRE) project, the initiative involves a research team made up of experts from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the US Department of Energy, the Argonne National Laboratory, as well as representatives from several major universities, environmental advocacies, and local government units. Funding for the project comes from the DoE’s Solar Energy Technologies Office.

A wrong method to rectify

One key structural issue of solar installations is that they are usually set up on land that has been leveled, which is to say the topsoil is stripped off along with any vegetation growing on it. Once the panels and their mounting racks are in place, the ground is covered with either gravel or turf.

In low-impact solar installation, the ground may still be leveled, but those doing the installation ensure that the topsoil remains as undisturbed as possible. This makes the area bee-friendly as any native vegetation remains to attract the insects and other pollinators.

Likewise, allowing any native vegetation to keep their roots helps retain more water than turf or gravel, particularly during storms or extended droughts. Over time, these will help improve the health of the soil, even in areas where the earth has been tainted with pollutants.

Beekeepers and researchers have begun to track the behavior of bees visiting particularly verdant InSPIRE sites. They are doing this in order to understand how greenery at solar sites will help insect populations and improve their understanding of how pollinator-friendly solar power sites can benefit local farms through improved crop yields.

Experts also say that allowing the vegetation to thrive may also improve the energy output of solar panels. If constantly exposed to warm temperatures, the efficiency of solar panels is greatly reduced. However, ground shading provided by healthy vegetation and the increased evaporation by a good layer of undergrowth can keep the panels cooler, thus improving their output capacity. Also, the use of native vegetation may significantly reduce maintenance costs as these are easier to care for – and less expensive – than either turf or gravel.