When investing $1-$2 million per acre in solar panels, one tends to focus on the benefits directly generated by the new hardware — 100% fuel-free energy with no moving parts. However—simply by using the right seed mix—each of these sites can also provide significant agricultural benefits related to storm water, soil, and crop pollination.
In 2016 Minnesota is poised for a large solar bloom — likely more than 4,000 acres of ground-mounted solar will be built. That’s a piddling 0.01 percent of Minnesota’s 26.9 million acres of farmland and will generate less than two percent of the state’s electricity. But for bees, monarch butterflies, and all pollinators, it will provide a world of good.
The Bakken oil boom has shown us firsthand that oil and gas development has significant land use, habitat and natural resources impacts, but until recently, data detailing the land use impacts from oil and gas development in the U.S. and Canada weren’t available. Now we know: oil and gas drilling operations occupy 11,583 square miles. This comes from a study published in Science which catalogues in detail the surface impacts from oil and gas drilling and extraction. As solar energy has dramatically increased in recent years (even being called “The new shale gas” by some) and is now reaching Minnesota in a big way, land use concerns from solar are beginning to bubble up. So we thought it would be interesting to do some simple comparisons with these massive oil and gas numbers and solar; keeping in mind that impacts from the use of land by these energy sources are vastly different (for example solar farms don’t risk spilling toxic chemicals, have no emissions and can provide habitat under and between panels, including for pollinators in Midwest).