Lancaster University: Solar Farms of the future – Lancaster research underpins new biodiversity guidance

Lancaster University researchers have helped to develop a new standard approach to assess how farms affect biodiversity.

Dr Fabio Carvalho, a postdoctoral researcher and Dr Alona Armstrong, Senior Lecturer in Energy and Environmental Sciences, both in the Lancaster Environment Centre, worked with two ecological consultancies to develop an assessment protocol that is underpinned by academic research but widely implementable by industry.

Hundreds of solar farms around the UK are already being proactively managed to promote wildlife but until now there was no way to consider the sector’s overall impacts and benefits to the natural environment, as monitoring approaches vary too greatly.

Putting the new approach into action will be increasingly important as more large-scale solar installations are built to help fulfil the nation’s demand for clean power and meet climate change commitments.

Solar Energy UK published the guidance this week in collaboration with Clarkson & Woods Ecological Consultants, Wychwood Biodiversity and Lancaster University. Not only will it help identify management issues and ensure planning obligations are met, but anonymised data reported under the framework will also form the basis of an annual report by the association.

Solar Energy UK’s Chief Executive, Chris Hewett said: “Solar energy is already a major contributor to Britain’s effort to prevent climate change. In recent years the industry has also seen evidence of nature recovery on its sites, for wildflowers, pollinators and other species. Solar Energy UK’s annual biodiversity survey will help us demonstrate how solar farms are improving prospects for local wildlife at scale.”

Dr Armstrong said: “The establishment of a standardised protocol for assessing the ecological impacts of solar parks is a significant step forward. The cumulative knowledge that the assessments will generate will enable the solar industry to take steps to maximise positive impacts and minimise detrimental impacts through site selection, design and management options. Ultimately, it should lead to healthier ecosystems with consequent positive impacts for society.”

Dr Carvalho said the guidance should “embed positive environmental outcomes” across the sector.

“Having a clear, unified approach will help provide valuable information for further scientific research on the environmental effects of solar parks and aid in integrating a range of ecosystem services to represent overall ecosystem health and functioning. New research and data collection may also encourage solar park operators and academics to share knowledge on the impact of land use decisions on natural assets, which I believe would be crucial information for land use policy development,” he said.

Hannah Montag, Senior Ecologist at Clarkson & Woods, said: “We have been delighted that Solar Energy UK have recognised the importance of a standardised approach and we have been very happy to be involved in the preparation of this latest guidance. We hope that it will help the industry to make best use of the data it gathers during ecological monitoring, informing internationally leading research and continuing to inform national trends. We hope the guidance improves the biodiversity performance of operational arrays and allows the UK’s solar industry to continue to be international pioneers in effective design and management of solar farms.”

Over the past six years, Clarkson and Woods and Wychwood Biodiversity have employed a standard ecological monitoring approach to all the solar arrays they have visited. Clarkson and Woods have compiled this data into its own Solar View reports and the large dataset assembled has enabled trends to be discerned. The data has also been used to inform ongoing scientific research being conducted by the universities of Lancaster and York, including the development and testing of the Solar Park Impacts on Ecosystem Services (SPIES) management decision support tool.

“Wychwood is delighted to see the launch of the Solar Energy UK standardised approach to ecological monitoring on solar farms. This key initiative will unify monitoring approaches and help us to better understand the ecological potential of solar farms,” said Guy Parker, Director of Wychwood Biodiversity.

The key requirements of the guidance include recording current and past management techniques, such as seed sowing and planting activities, location and the height of the panels, while also recording the type of management applied, such as being grazed throughout the year or only part of it. Botanical quadrats – a standard technique to record species’ presence – should also be used, which can in turn infer potential nectar production.

One optional component meshes with Natural England’s Biodiversity Net Gain Metric, which can be used to compare pre-deployment data with data collected from monitoring, thus establishing changes in habitats and the net gain achieved. Other option aspects include the condition of on-site watercourses, surveying breeding birds and, where relevant, protected mammals such as rare harvest mice, water voles and bats.

Site owners will be asked to submit anonymised data that will feed into an annual Solar Energy UK report that will provide a detailed analysis of ecological trends on solar farms across the country.