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Biodiversity in Photovoltaic Systems

Open space solar parks as places of biodiversity

Although surveys of the population reveal a desire for an energy turnaround - the 2021 Acceptance Survey by the Agency for Renewable Energies showed that 83% of the population favour a greater expansion of renewable energies - many people reject large solar power plants in open spaces, often for environmental reasons of all things. They are of the opinion that it seals the soils, takes space from nature and steals habitats from animals. Unfortunately, that can happen, depending on how and where the solar power plants are built. On the other hand, solar power plants can even be a positive for flora, fauna and biodiversity in general. Because if you build them correctly, about 99% of the natural areas remain in the solar parks.

Biodiversity in the solar park

A solar power system with solar modules placed close together or even lying flat on the ground seals off most of the ground. This makes it difficult for flora to grow and for animals to live there. But such power plants are not the standard, even if the opposite impression is given. Because solar parks are often photographed from a bird's-eye view, this makes the natural areas between the sloping solar modules difficult to see.

But if you take a close look at a solar park, you will notice how much space it offers for animals and plantlife. Biodiversity is not only undisturbed by the modules, but actually benefits from them. Solar modules are a source of shade. Below them, the weather conditions are more moderate than on open ground. Animals and plants, such as wild herbs, small creatures, reptiles and insects, find protection there and can thrive. Ground-nesting birds use the sheltered area under the solar modules to nest, and mammals such as the hare can also raise their young there. If there are bodies of water on the site of the solar park, amphibians can also live there well.

Another advantage of open space solar parks for flora and fauna is that there are hardly any people around. Solar parks are very low-maintenance and the general public, such as pedestrians, do not have access to the inside of the parks, they are protected by fences.

The company Climagy, a close business partner of PADCON GmbH, specialises in the planning and development of particularly environmentally friendly solar power plants that seal the ground as little as possible, leave enough space for solar radiation on the ground and offer flora and fauna optimal living conditions.

Acceptance increases when people have experience with ground-mounted systems

Most people understand that solar parks do not disturb the environment and can even be valuable for biodiversity when they see such a power plant up close.

As the survey mentioned at the beginning also shows, approval for solar power plants increases amongst people who live within a radius of 5 kilometres from these plants. While only 59% of all respondents were in favour of open-space solar parks, 72% of those who have such a park nearby did approve (see diagram PHOTON 01/2022, p. 33, based on the survey by the Agency for Renewable Energies linked above in November 2021).

What do nature conservation organisations say about open space systems?

Environmental protection organisations such as NABU describe the effects of solar parks on nature as "limited". Among other things, NABU criticises that larger animals such as deer or beavers cannot use the areas as habitat.

From the point of view of conservationists, the plants must meet certain requirements to be defined as promoting biodiversity rather than harming it:

  • They are to be installed in areas that have previously been intensively used and are of little nature conservation importance (e.g. previously heavily sealed or agriculturally used areas such as fields or military sites).
  • Open-space systems should not have a landscape-defining character.
  • There should be an individual assessment, sometimes including an environmental impact assessment, to determine whether a planned solar park is suitable for a specific location.
  • Valuable nature conservation areas such as bird sanctuaries, wetlands or flora and fauna habitats should be excluded from the expansion of open space solar systems.
  • If the landscape is fragmented by a solar park, corridors for animals whose habitat is affected by the fragmentation must also be planned.
  • The fence systems must be low and contain no barbed wire. Then small mammals can live in the plants.

Together with the Federal Association of the Solar Industry, NABU has drawn up a list of criteria for environmentally compatible photovoltaic ground-mounted systems. It was created in 2005 and revised in 2010, but is still valid today.

Agriculture and solar power plants: the idea of ​​dual use

Since Germany is not a large-area country and space is correspondingly limited, there is the concept of ​​dual use: that open-space solar parks can also be used for agriculture. Solar parks on agricultural land are referred to as "Argi photovoltaics". Such systems already exist; in Germany they have a total photovoltaic capacity of around 60 GW, while vegetables, fruit, grain or wine are grown between the solar modules.

As the magazine top agrar reports, the federal government is planning to promote the expansion of open space systems on agricultural fields. Federal Minister of Economics Habeck expects the installation of up to 200 GW of additional photovoltaic capacity on agricultural land.

The first solar park operators let sheep graze between the modules. This keeps the grass short without the intervention of human machines. At the same time, the sheep spread the seeds and pollen of various plants in their wool. If the solar park is secured with a stable fencing, the sheep are also safe from predators such as wolves.