A pollinator test plot underneath the PV array at the Chisago Solar Site, part of the Aurora Solar Project in Minnesota. NREL scientist Jordan Macknick is researching the economical and ecological affect of pollinator plants planted underneath the PV array

Solar projects can be designed and sited to meet natural resource conservation goals. Capturing the natural resource co-benefit opportunities of solar development will involve creative partnerships, targeted spatial planning, and rethinking site and project design.

Meeting the solar deployment goals announced by utilities, corporations, and cities in the Midwest will mean that hundreds of thousands of acres of land in the region will need to be converted to solar energy generation. As the number and scale of Midwestern solar energy projects increases,[1] the potential for conflict with natural resources and systems will also increase. State and local governments have an opportunity to proactively address the issues that can arise to the benefit of their communities’ environment and economy.

An individual solar project can convert thousands of acres of land to electricity generation and stakeholders must weigh the impact of such projects on natural systems and economic use of natural resources. Natural resource protection and land use concerns related to such projects can include protection of surface and ground waters, habitat areas, sensitive natural systems, recreational resources, and use of agricultural resources. As solar project developers address some or all of these issues, it can add costs to their project development. In the process of weighing natural resource impacts and economic development opportunities, barriers to projects and conflict among parties can arise. However, efforts are underway to design solar development to enhance, rather than detract from, natural resource protection and use.

Figure 1. Proposed utility-scale solar installations, Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) service territory

Graph of proposed utility scale installations in the MISO region

Source: Data from the proposed solar in the MISO Generator Interconnection Queue, accessed Nov 5 2019, https://www.misoenergy.org/planning/generator-interconnection/GI_Queue; data on existing solar from the Solar Energy Industry Association, Solar State by State, data through 2nd quarter of 2019 (does not include several large projects now under construction).
Note: Most proposals will not be built, but the queue indicates strong growth in the market and high levels of development pressure.

Aligning solar development with natural resource protection goals

The Great Plains Institute (GPI) is investigating such efforts and collaborating with solar energy developers, governmental agencies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that protect or restore natural areas and ecological functions. GPI is asking the question: can conservation and natural area restoration programs be aligned with solar development to create low-impact development practices or even capture ecological co-benefits?

Figure 2. High-value natural resources for protection in Minnesota

High-value natural resources for protection in Minnesota

Source: Above left DWSMA map by Great Plains Institute 2019, data from the Minnesota Department of Health. Above right Wildlife Action Network map, developed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for the 2015-2025 MN Wildlife Action Plan (April 13, 2016), https://files.dnr.state.mn.us/assistance/nrplanning/bigpicture/mnwap/mndnr_wildlife_action_network_description.pdf.
Note: These maps portray areas in Minnesota that have been designated as high-value resources for protection; the DWSMA for protection of drinking water supplies, the WAN for protection and maintenance of high-value species. In both maps the red areas are the most critical or most at-risk resources.


Natural resource and land conservation entities encourage practices that can be (and in some cases already are) part of solar array site designs such as the following:

  • creating pollinator habitat
  • restoring and protecting native grassland habitat
  • creating buffers areas to sensitive habitat or
  • providing water quality protection in sensitive watersheds

In spite of this, solar energy production is frequently considered as an industrial land use, and thus in conflict with ecological protection or restoration goals and the functioning of natural systems.

Creating collaboration

GPI convenes a partnership of natural resource NGOs and state and federal agencies to identify how solar projects could integrate with public and private land, habitat, and natural system conservation initiatives or programs. Our work seeks to understand barriers and define realistic opportunities by engaging with the conservation community, researching the mechanics of conservation practices, and understanding the goals of land conservation programs.

Examples of the questions we’re exploring:

How could solar siting criteria and site design standards be used to create the conservation benefits sought by federal and state agencies and conservation NGOs?

  • Can solar development to directed to those areas where is pollinator habitat most needed?
  • Can solar development serve to meet drinking water management plan goals that seek perennial ground cover rather than crops than pose a risk to public water supplies?
  • How could solar projects increase enrollment in federal agricultural conservation programs?

How could solar development be used to leverage conservation that would not otherwise occur?

  • Can solar development apply ‘conservation design’ principals as a limited development component of a larger conservation initiative?
  • Can solar development become a means to sequester carbon in the soil, using “natural climate solutions”[2] to reach negative carbon energy or otherwise generate credits in carbon offset markets?

Research & engagement results: Examples for discussing conservation co-benefits

We evaluated over 30 natural resource protection programs and land conservation initiatives that are active in Minnesota for potential ecosystem/solar co-benefit opportunities. We then engaged a number of state and regional conservation professionals working on a variety of land and natural system conservation programs to see their perspective on the potential for co-benefits of solar development and conservation programs. These conversations revealed a strong overlap between the goals of existing conservation programs and the ecological benefits solar sites can provide if site design deliberately incorporates conservation goals.

Table 1 pairs each identified ecological benefit with an example conservation program and suggests a pathway for integration. These examples are intended to provide a starting point for discussion on conservation co-benefits and how to achieve them.


Table 1. Opportunities for solar projects to create ecological benefits through partnership with existing conservation programs

Ecological Benefit Program Name Conservation Goals Applicable Solar Site Design Elements Possible Pathway to Integrate Solar
Create pollinator habitat and increase biodiversity Board of Water and Soil Resources Habitat Friendly Solar Program Certification Create beneficial habitat for gamebirds, songbirds, pollinators, and prevent soil erosion. Multi-season pollinator flowers and native grasses. Solar projects are already eligible
Protect groundwater quality in source water or wellhead protection areas Grassroots Source Water Protection Program Protect groundwater from nutrient contamination, especially in areas classified as high or very high vulnerability. Perennial ground cover and limited or no chemical applications. Partner with source water protection organizations to identify priority sites.
Improve and protect surface water quality Natural Resources Conservation Service Environmental Quality Incentives Program Provide technical and financial assistance to farmers for conservation practices that protect water quality, prevent soil erosion, and enhance wildlife habitat. Ground cover for water quality protection and habitat enhancement per recommendations. Partner with watershed protection organizations to identify priority sites. Propose statutory or rule changes to allow EQIP eligibility on those sites.
Preserve wetland, prairie, and forest habitat Land trust conservation easement programs. Permanently prevent development and promote specific conservation goals identified by agreement between the land trust and landowner. Depends on the goals of the specific easement program. Locate solar adjacent to priority conservation land and require conservation of a contiguous parcel. Partner with land trusts to identify priority locations.
Provide ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration Climate Action Reserve Certify voluntary projects that remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Deep-rooted grasses. Forage for rotational grazing. Support development of a protocol for grassland restoration.

Solar+natural resource co-benefits

Solar projects that are appropriately sited and incorporate conservation design practices have the potential to enhance or achieve the conservation goals of each of the programs listed in Table 1 and to provide ecosystem services such as clean water and pollination to the local community.

The US Department of Agriculture describes ecosystem services as:

“Natural assets such as rivers, forests, grasslands and wetlands benefit society through the ecosystem services they provide, including water purification, air quality improvements, and flood protection, among other benefits. However, these services are frequently left out of resource management decisions because they aren’t easily quantified or assigned a monetary value. As a result, society undervalues these environmental benefits, contributing to the loss of natural systems. Environmental markets can provide incentives to preserve ecosystems and the services they provide.

The benefits of conservation design practices also create synergies that benefit solar energy production. Vegetative ground cover on solar sites decreases panel temperatures and reduces annual degradation rates,[3] resulting in improved energy production efficiency. Overall, solar developers enhance the economic value of their assets by incorporating conservation design.  Similarly, enabling compliance pathways will lower soft costs associated with development regulation, and potentially create financial partnerships to keep compliance costs low.

In recognizing these opportunities, local and state regulators could create compliance pathways that reward good design and streamline permitting processes. Conservation programs could be modified to enable leveraging the economic opportunity of solar development to achieve conservation goals.

Solar+Natural Resources Partnership process

Does the rapid expansion of solar development across the Midwest create opportunities, or risks, for the region’s natural resources and ecosystems? As part of the Minnesota Solar Pathways project, which is a US Department of Energy-funded initiative to proactively identify and address barriers to reaching Minnesota’s 10 percent-by-2030 solar energy goal, GPI has launched a partnership of natural resource program managers and conservation advocates to answer this question. The Solar+Natural Resources Partnership is identifying criteria for evaluating solar+natural resource co-benefits, investigating natural resource use cases for “solar+” pilot projects, and defining new regulatory approaches that capture co-benefits rather than create conflict. The Partnership’s goal is to create new best practices for communities and developers that enhance ecosystem services and enable realization of natural resource protection goals through solar development.

If you have questions about the Solar+Natural Resources Partnership, or ideas for potential pilot projects, contact Brian Ross at 612-767-7296 or [email protected].


Photo credit: Josh Bauer / National Renewable Energy Laboratory

[1] As of July 15, 2019, the MISO interconnection queue showed 57 GW of proposed solar energy projects, the majority of which are over 100 MW in size, https://www.misoenergy.org/planning/generator-interconnection/GI_Queue/. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory projects an additional 350 GW of solar energy (mostly utility scale) nationally by 2030 in Cole, et al. SunShot 2030 for Photovoltaics (PV): Envisioning a Low-cost PV Future, National Renewable Energy Laboratory/TP-6A20-68105 (2017): v-vi, https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy17osti/68105.pdf.

[2] See the Nature Conservancy’s overview of natural climate solutions, http://naturalclimatesolutions.org/; see the Land Trust Alliance’s definition of natural climate solutions, https://climatechange.lta.org/natural-climate-solutions/.

[3] Jordan Macknick, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, “Overview of opportunities for low-impact of solar PV” (presentation, Fresh EnergySeptember 14, 2016), https://2lwej44565rn2mmjlk31pmwq-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/NREL_Event_DavisSlides.compressed.pdf.

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